Sports Journalism, Media Relations for the Oil and Gas Industry, and Managing a Portfolio of Clients: How Austin Staton Took a Passion for Communications and Transformed It into an Incredible Career

In an article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Austin Staton, Senior Account Executive at Pierpont Communications, about loving baseball as a child, growing up and working in the world of sports journalism, transitioning to communications for the oil and gas industry at bp, and eventually settling into a position overseeing a client portfolio at Pierpont Communications. Austin also covers his adventures in podcasting, which have yielded three successful shows, hundreds of episodes, and a lot of new friends along the way.

Growing up, the oil and gas industry was the furthest thing from Austin Staton’s mind; instead, he dreamt of being a professional baseball player. “That was my dream, and I had it all mapped out,” he said with a laugh. “I was going to be a Hall of Fame baseball player and win a World Series with the Houston Astros. That was the plan.” The dream was more of a journey than a destination, as Austin also wanted to retire—after his legendary baseball career—and become a broadcaster for the Astros, as well. “I wanted to be like Milo Hamilton, the former radio play-by-play voice,” he explained. “He was actually the one who called Hank Aaron’s historic 715th homerun back in 1974.

Outfielder Hank Aaron watched as his hit curved up and out into his 715th homerun in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against the Dodgers. Before what would turn into a massive celebration, Milo Hamilton called the now historic moment.

While his plans to enter the annals of baseball history didn’t exactly pan out, Austin’s passion for communications remained strong, even in those early years. “I would be that nerd when I was a kid who would watch baseball games on mute and record myself calling the games,” he said. “When I was 10 years old, I would call into the Astro’s post-game show.” As he grew up and the middle school years gave way to high school, sports were still a big part of his life, but he also developed new interests in politics, foreign policy, and debate. “I found that I really loved debate,” he said. “I was even nationally ranked at one point. So, I decided I’d on a career pivot into international business law.”

After making his way to Baylor University and majoring in Political Science, Austin thought the next step was law school. His passion for sports, however, remained an itch that he couldn’t quite scratch, especially as he watched his fraternity brothers regularly on the sidelines at sporting events. “I always wondered how they got down there, how I could get paid to be down there,” he recalled. “Then I found out that they worked at the Athletics Communications Office as student assistants. So, I applied for a job with the Athletic Media Relations department and was hired on.” His love of sports didn’t go unnoticed, with Austin quickly given a lot of responsibility. It opened his eyes to the fact that communications was a viable career path, and Austin worked anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week while employed as a student.

Despite the joy of this work, it was a bit late for Austin to change his major, so he stuck with Political Science. He points to some of his success in later years being due to the fact that he juggled with communications and media relations working with Baylor athletics while pursuing a degree that taught him about history, politics, literature, and social issues. “I never took a journalism or communications class,” he explained. “Everything that I learned about communications, I learned from those opportunities given to me at Baylor and mentors like Heath Nielsen and Chris Yandle, like being able to work with national media outlets. And I already had the writing chops and public speaking abilities from my earlier work, so it was a natural transition.”

Austin working a Baylor game in 2009.

Degree in hand, Austin’s first job was at Louisiana Tech University, where he barely made enough to live on despite working 75 to 100 hours a week during the peak of the sports season. It was a difficult year, one where his spendable income after paying his bills every month was about $75. Although the generous package was hard to say goodbye to, Austin moved back to Houston and started looking at roles in sports that would pay a decent salary. He also decided at this point to look at a corporate job. When a recruiter contacted Austin about a contract communications role at bp after he’d posted his resume on Rigzone, he was at a crossroads, as he was simultaneously interviewing for a social media position with the Dallas Cowboys.

In the winter of 2011, Austin left Valley Ranch—then the home of the Cowboys’ headquarters and training facility—feeling like the job was in the bag. “As a native Houstonian, I hated the Cowboys,” he said, chuckling, “but I thought I was going to end up working with them.” The next day, Austin was back in Houston on an interview with the hiring manager at bp, but he didn’t think he’d gotten the job. When 2012 rolled around, he got the call from the Cowboys that they’d decided to go with the other candidate, and not two hours later, the recruiter called congratulating him on bp deciding to hire him for the contract role. “It was weird how it worked out,” he said. “Then, the six-month contract turned into one year, and after that I was hired on full time.”

Initially, the work was largely focused on internal communications, with Austin managing content on the company’s intranet. He also played a part in introducing video as a content medium, which has since become an integral component of bp’s strategy. Austin then transferred into the press office, where he oversaw “the fun stuff,” as he called it. “These were the things that would impact the company’s reputation in communities in which we lived and worked, like STEM education, university relations, veterans outreach, and our partnership with Team USA,” he said. Through this focus, Austin was often insulated from more technical and operationally focused communications, though even he wasn’t immune after the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout. He was hired after the blowout and wasn’t responsible for running media during that time, but even his proximity during litigation and settlement provided him with ample opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in crisis communications, which he’s taken forward as he’s moved on in his career.

Near the end of his nine years with bp, Austin found himself the arbiter of significantly more content than when he’d started. “I still did media affairs stuff, but I also co-led media training and crisis communications in North America,” he explained. “I helped oversee a lot of our content creation in the U.S., including work with video, photography, and graphic design, as well. And it’s funny, because I can trace so many of the fundamentals that enabled me to be successful in such a multifaceted job to my work at Baylor. Working in sports, you have to wear a lot of hats, which is something I’ve seen lacking in many students today who focus narrowly on one functional area.” Doing so much work with such limited resources, he said, ultimately prepared him for the challenges of a job that layered several roles into one.

Austin’s time at bp also gave him a chance to travel—including stints in Brazil and Oman—and put him in front of some noteworthy folks, both within bp and through the media. “I got to work with Susan Dio, the first female Chairman and President of bp America,” he recalled. “I got to interview congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher on stage. And being on the Communications & Advocacy team meant I could meet and connect with some really incredible people, especially at such a young age. These are the kinds of experiences that change you as a person.” He also worked with Geoff Morrell, bp’s former communications and public relations (PR) leader, before Geoff moved on to lead corporate affairs for The Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles. Figures that were out of reach to the average employee were a phone call or text away for Austin, a phenomenon he still appreciates even today.

In early 2021, Austin moved on to work for Pierpont Communications, an agency managing a portfolio of clients with diverse communications and PR needs. The variety of clients, as well as the fact that many don’t have dedicated company communications resources, stands in stark contrast to what he encountered during his tenure at bp, where verticals across communications subdisciplines existed to support every facet of the business. “It’s been very different to work for an agency after working for a corporation,” he explained. “It’s not energy clients every day, but energy is still a part of the portfolio. I could be working with an offshore drilling company and a natural gas compression company in the same day, helping them with crisis communications and media training. It’s fun to be able to use my knowledge from my time at bp to help new clients build better communications programs.”

It’s not all work, all the time for Austin, either, as he’s also something of a serial podcaster. “It all started when my friend Zack and I were on the phone one day and started talking about politics before catching up on life and transitioning into a discussion about Baylor football,” he said. “After that, I was thinking about how much I enjoyed the conversation, how well it flowed, and I wondered if other people would be interested in hearing us talk about sports, politics, and pop culture. I shot him a text, and he agreed to do it, along with another friend of ours, Jeremy.” Though Zack had to drop out not too long after starting, Austin and Jeremy continued down the path, with the two launching a podcast called “The Weekly Brew.”

Austin was drawn to podcasting as a content medium early on for its ability to facilitate candid conversations and because it allowed him and co-hosts to talk about…well, whatever they wanted.

Though they weren’t sure how the show would perform, it ended up doing extremely well, eventually reaching 30,000 to 40,000 listeners per week. This success led to a 120-episode run where even notable political figures and sports celebrities joined the show from time to time. “This went back to me wanting to be a sports broadcaster and call games,” Austin recalled. “This was kind of like that—I got to sit around with friends and talk and people actually listened to us. Some of my close friends today I met through that podcast.” Eventually, the show became too big for the two to handle, as it hadn’t been properly monetized and was incredibly time-consuming to produce. To continue to grow, they were faced with a choice: quit their day jobs and focus on the podcast or keep working their day jobs and forego it. With bills looming large, the pair made the decision almost three years after starting the podcast to say goodbye. Though that iteration is dead, Austin hinted that there may be a future for “The Weekly Brew” yet, with a friend at the NFL Network wanting to see it brought back to life.

The next podcast was “The Business Communicators,” which Austin originally dreamt up while he was President-Elect of the Houston chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). “That one was basically me just interviewing interesting people in the comms space, whether they were local to Houston or global,” he explained. “For the first two seasons I did it by myself, while in the third I added two new co-hosts. We don’t have a massive audience, but it’s fun to get together and talk about issues directly affecting the communications industry.” With Hattie Horn and Thomas Baen now regularly joining Austin behind the mic, the podcast serves as a gathering place for communications professionals to learn about trends in the industry and best practices they can implement to better do their jobs. It’s a win-win for the hosts and the listeners.

The latest and greatest from Austin is a podcast called “Cautious Coffee,” an idea that he first started with his friend DeRae Crane while at bp and has now brought into the mainstream. He recalled how an interaction with DeRae, not only a former colleague at bp but a U.S. Army veteran and Olympic boxer, inspired him. “After George Floyd was killed, DeRae posted something on Instagram about how he was concerned, for the first time in his life, to go out into the world wearing a hoodie,” Austin said. “And I hated that. So, I reached out and told him if he ever needed to talk, to let me know. We ended up on the phone a week or two later and just talked about life, everything going on in the country.” The name Cautious Coffee was brilliantly crafted by DeRae after poking fun at Austin’s fascination with lattes in the office and Austin “slurping” the coffee to cool it off. Come to find out, DeRae began drinking coffee during the pandemic and reached out to Austin with the subject line “Cautious Coffee” shortly after their Instagram exchange—admitting that he, too, slurped his coffee to cool it off, and noting that no apology was too small to make.

Austin and DeRae became fast friends, brought together by a chance to have meaningful conversations and inspire fruitful dialogue in a society that’s grown all too polarized.

At the time, bp was going through a reorganization as the company adapted to changes in the marketplace and shifted its strategy to be able to achieve its 2050 ambitions. The company was also focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which made it seem like a good time to launch a show that could boost morale while creating a forum for people to voice their experiences, as they’d seen and understood them. Austin and DeRae launched Cautious Coffee at bp so that people who wanted to have real conversations to address those topics that might be awkward or uncomfortable could do so. “We wanted to create a forum where people could just talk openly about things that were happening, whether the election, COVID-19 vaccines, working from home, racial inequality in America—whatever they wanted,” he explained. “And we wanted it to be a dialogue where people could learn from each other, not get angry because their opinions differed.” Though it wasn’t required for employees to attend, all were welcome to be a part of the conversation. So, every Friday morning, Cautious Coffee was held to much fanfare, jam-packed calls reinforcing what Austin and DeRae already knew in their hearts: people wanted to be heard.

After leaving bp, the two gave the forum new life as a podcast, separated from the constraints of being at bp. The format is still much the same; the two have conversations about life, encouraging others to consider that just because they don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean their ideas aren’t valid. In the era of polarization, Austin said, he felt this was all too important. “So many people get upset if someone has a different viewpoint,” he continued. “I feel like members of our generation can’t communicate with each other. And I don’t know if it’s because of social media, access to phones, outrage and cancel culture, or what—but I want to get to a place where we can talk to people with whom we disagree and try to get to know one another better, to figure out where the person is coming from.” Sure, there are many times in which wavering on something would mean compromising on an ideal—but sacrificing your beliefs or engaging on topics on which you fundamentally disagree isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s to look at all that space in the middle where we really can learn and grow.

Austin and DeRae host an episode of Cautious Coffee.

And now for the meat of the issue—why do his efforts to amplify communications in energy, and otherwise, matter? In an industry where marketing and communications is often unfairly viewed as little more than a cost burden, with many a technical person chuckling, “Oh, another email from marketing!”, has Austin been able to solidify for his peers at bp and in general why what he does is important? Fortunately, the career communicator felt that he had made progress. “I think communications is absolutely critical,” he declared. “If a company isn’t sharing their narrative, their values, what they’re doing to make the world a better place and lift people out of poverty, someone else is. If you can empower your people to share your company brand and values via storytelling, that’s huge. Communications can definitely add value and really help enhance the company’s reputation.”

With energy companies setting out ambitious net-zero goals and refocusing efforts around their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs, the time has come for the industry to take control and reshape its identity. While beleaguered oil and gas companies have long fought against the increasingly negative tide of public opinion—much of it formed precisely because those same companies have failed to control the narrative—some challenges are of their own making. Trust, Austin said, is a major concern. “Data has consistently shown that people want their CEOs and businesses to speak out on issues that matter to them,” he explained. “You have to be proactive. Stakeholders and members of the community, they’re demanding accountability on a variety of metrics, and you have to communicate them transparently. Trust is such an important part of being a communications professional, but you have to earn it. We have to use trust to move the conversation forward.”

What’s next for Austin? As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to abate, he’s hopeful that he can start traveling again, another passion that he’s nurtured over the years. “I didn’t travel a lot as a kid,” he said. “But since 2013, when I really got the travel bug, I’ve been to six continents and more than 50 countries.” Fortunately, he’s something of a professional price optimizer, if you will, finding insane deals that would make other would-be globetrotters jealous. “I took a flight from Houston to Sydney for $500,” he said. “For a 17-hour flight! That’s incredible. I just love traveling, and my fiancé does, too, so I’m really looking to getting back out there and seeing more of the world now that the virus is slowing down a bit.” Speaking of fiancés, Austin also needs to get married at some point in the future, though he hasn’t settled on a date yet. What he does admit is that he hit the big time with Katie Hirvela, his future wife. “There’s a term we use in sports called ‘outkicking your coverage,’” he began, a smile turning into a huge grin. “Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she’s got an incredible job. She’s awesome.”

Austin and soon-to-be-wife Katie.