Richard Levick, an influential public relations advisor, wrote a piece for Forbes last week about how the Oil and Gas industry’s PR machine is losing the battle for hearts and minds of mainstream America “despite industry advertising budgets that dwarf the activist war chest.” Why? In Levick’s view, it’s all about anti-fracking activists’ mastery of social media to galvanize and amplify grass roots movements. Or in his words:
Social media outreach, online content development, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) are all dominated by activist voices. As a result, they are not only rallying significant grassroots opposition; they are doing it in ways that neutralize any advantage that industry money once provided.
Anti-fracking campaigns, both at institutional levels and from the ground up, were quick to catch the crest of the social media wave that has largely displaced community newspapers and town halls as popular incubators and catalysts for free speech, political action, and self-governance. Levick uses an empirical analysis, including a count of tweets about fracking over a given period, to illustrate how “the most influential conversation around this topic is highly negative.” He laments that the industry supporters do little or nothing to engage this on-line discussion, and urges them to get in the program.
Activists understand that the marketplace of ideas has evolved – and they are evolving – and leading — right along with it. If fracking is to become an accepted practice in the U.S., the energy industry must do so as well.
I found Levick’s points relevant enough to merit posting on my own Facebook Page, with this comment: “PR & the fracking war. Big Oil & Gas $ versus anti-fracking organization. Media expert Richard Levick explains natgas industry’s failure in Forbes.”
A reader, perhaps interpreting my post as an endorsement of Levick’s industry coaching, responded that the article was misguided, as the anti-fracking battle transcends a PR contest. She left this query. “He thinks it just comes down to a pr battle. What do you think?” Fair question, and one that – given it was posted on facebook and I am now responding on Blogger -- illustrates the influence of the new media that Levick writes about.
So here’s my answer: As a journalist, I’m always interested in how a message is conveyed, the degree to which it piques public interest, people’s perceptions, and what influences them. I welcome analysis from informed observers, and in this regard I think Levick’s piece rings true… mostly. The industry has done a lousy job from the start explaining itself with a patronizing “Trust-Us-It’s-Safe” message. This assessment is not just from Levkick, but is shared by notable industry supporters as well as skeptics, and it applies to both the industry’s traditional advertising campaigns in print and broadcast, as well as its social media efforts. Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania-governor-turned-public-relations-figurehead for the industry, told an Associated Press reporter that the industry had to do a better job conveying a positive public image and “they know they have some work to do.” That was in 2010.
Last week, Sarah Murphy wrote an article for Motley Fool, the popular investor guide, titled “Fracking is Losing the PR battle.” She cited a recent report called Disclosing the Facts: Transparency and Risk in Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, released last week. The report assesses investors’ needs for risk disclosure and mitigation against company practices and found “a systematic, industry-wide failure to adequately disclose fracking-related information that is material to investors.” Murphy explains what this means in her view:
The thing is, fracking may really not be as awful as the campaigns make it appear, but the industry is going to have to rethink its strategy or risk condemnation in the court of public opinion…
Seriously, these guys have got to step up their game if they want to survive. At last week's SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing, I talked with countless fund managers, investors, financial advisors, and academics, all of whom agreed that while fracking is controversial from a sustainability perspective, the industry's ham-fisted approach to public engagement has been so feeble as to be pathetic.
In this day and age, much of that engagement is on line. And, as Levick points out, it’s a place where the industry is out of its element of old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising strategies aimed at conventional media.
While industry money went into advertising and traditional “outreach” campaigns that net diminishing returns in the digital age of public affairs… activists stretched every dollar with online efforts that prove far more effective.
The trend is also important in politics. Levick links to another assessment that recaps the advantage Obama had over Romney by understanding and applying the power of Social Media in an “era where familiarity, credibility, and the ability to forge personal connections trump traditional advertising at every turn.”
The accounts of Levick, Murphy, and Ridge are but a few assessments of how the industry has failed with the traditional media with patronizing and heavy handed messaging, and failed with the new media with its inability to engage savvy and influential audiences on line. But there is a critical third frontier that they don’t address: Big-money politics.
Popular opinion is only one gauge of a campaign’s success. The other is special interest – the megaphone through which public opinion is conveyed to Washington. The size of the megaphone is related to lobbying wherewithal of a given interest, and the lobbying wherewithal is largely a function of the money behind it. Here the industry is winning, at least in Washington. The Obama administration has identified shale gas development as a “priority” in meeting the nation’s future energy needs. That may be related to lobbying, or not. But certainly lobbying has everything to do with the policy framework that heavily favors the industry over others. Specifically, Obama’s administration and Congress have preserved drilling and fracking industry exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste disposal laws – passes that allow industry to operate with one foot in the pre-regulatory era. Without these exemptions, the industry would have to reveal what hazardous substances that it puts into the ground, and characterize the waste that comes out – revelations that would open the door to a host of other laws, and cast fracking in an altogether different public light.
The lobbying battle at regional and local levels is not going as well for the industry, or conversely, is going much better for the activists. New York state remains off limits to the industry pending a moratorium now in its sixth year. And this month local municipalities in California and Colorado have advanced the Home Rule movement -- which settles drilling issues with local town boards and referendums -- that is gaining traction in New York and Pennsylvania. As Levick notes about the recent vote in Colorado: Boulder, Fort Collins and Lafayette overwhelmingly voted for drilling bans. The industry had only one victory in Broomfield, an area that traditionally trends Republican, where voters rejected the environmentalist agenda by the slimmest of margins.
In the long run, operators and investors continue to push forward with shale gas development that has flooded the market with cheap natural gas. The industry’s success or failure over the longer term hinges on its ability to address issues of sustainability -- not just ecologically, but economically and politically -- in the Market Place of Ideas, where voters and investors judge the good from the bad.