Friday, November 15, 2013

Fracking critics gain leverage with social media mastery Why PR matters in the war over shale gas

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.


  1. To maintain a lie is expensive. Doing political workarounds takes time and effort. Industry experts and political consultants are expensive. Image consultants and PR firms don't work for free. Keeping environmental consulting firms focussed on the task at hand takes billable hours and 2.5 to 3.0 multipliers. Putting the kibosh on US EPA investigations don't get done without lobbyists at $850/hr. Corporate attorneys bill every second at a rate between $350 and $1,000 per hour. Corporate media still has to pay Maureen Dowd for twice weekly irrelevant musings. It's not cheap. This fracking promotion. Finally, O&G needs a good victim story that won't write itself on Forbes or CNBC.

    The other side just needs some pissed off property owners and a blog (or movie camera) and a journalists who can write really well.

    1. Excellent points. I will add, though, that people posting on the Internet does not equal people reading posts on the internet. So, in addition to getting the message (or video or blog) out there, Internet users have to have some experience in promoting it. Stories do not automatically gain traction simply by being on the Internet. For every story that goes viral, there are hundreds if not thousands that never get found. Levick’s points about technical experience and media experience -- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) are relevant. All that said, I think Internet audiences can readily distinguish between something that is genuine versus something that is fabricated, no matter how it’s promoted.

    2. Absolutely--simply posting on the internet does not equal getting read on the internet (or having your video seen on the internet). But, by now there is a LOT of information on the internet that is critical of fracking. Granted, some of that information may not be very visible to many people. Still, there is enough of it out there that every time the industry attempts to promote itself, it is probably making more people curious enough to go to the internet and start searching for information, and when they do, they are very likely to find at least some information that is critical of fracking. This means that the industry's advertising dollars are not buying the industry the kind of traction they would have bought pre-internet.

    3. Yes, industry has less control over the message in the Internet age.

    4. I totally oversimplified to try to make a point. It does take a great amount of effort and grey matter to gather and relay verifiable information. Off topic, I just listened to Bob Edwards NPR program. He interviewed David Folkenflik about his new biography on Rupert Murdoch. Even blog comments sections are not too small time to spend effort and money on message control. Just amazing.

    5. Michael, Thanks for that tip. I'm very interested in the scramble to control the message in the Internet age now that major media outlets are no longer the primary gatekeepers.

    6. Silly off topic musings alert, but germane to the Tom's comment:

      What's weird is that we (the US consumer of news and information) spend as much or more time soaking in information than we did in the past. We are exposed to more advertisements than ever before. I'm wondering if the money being made by the great relay corporations isn't being passed down fairly to content providers. This would be journalists, entertainment writers, etc.

      For instance, I purchased a laptop a couple years ago for $700, spend around $60/mo. for an internet connection via cable and around $25/mo. for a 4g internet via smartphone. These costs did not incur 25 years ago. Back then, I paid $25 to $30 dollars per month to get a daily paper, a weekly magazine and several monthlies. I paid $0 per month for over-the-air TV viewing and radio listening. The time watching, looking, reading and listening to advertisements has probably gone up in 25 years. I'm guessing that greater chunks of the monthly fees are staying with information relay corporations like Microsoft, Apple, Comcast/NBC, AT&T and Google. None of these folks hire or pay much for content creation. They're sort of like the modern day paperboys, but with HTML programming skills.

      The internet model seems to assume that content creation is almost free. For instance, Facebook pays essentially nothing for its content. Granted most of it is useless to everyone in the world accept the mother of the child whose picture is being posted. However, google plus, facebook and others are making money off original news and information content and not passing it down to creators.

      Why can't an established media corporation like Chicago Tribune, with an ads based website, make money without subscription fees?

      And why can't fees to Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T, Google etc. go to media outlets for news and information?

    7. Michael, these off topic musings happen to be, more or less, relevant to an e-book proposal I'm now working on. The fracking saga is a great example of a narrative that continues to unfold at the same time the means of telling of the story is changing.

    8. FYI, Folkenflik will be live chatting on Gawker today at 1 pm. Should be interesting. Even though its a blog typically dedicated to the more useless and shameful matters of society, it does occasionally post serious stuff.

  2. Michael's comment about lying is dead-on: maintaining a lie (or a web of lies) is expensive. It's also difficult, and the more complicated the web, the more likely it is that the liars will start to sound like characters in some silly sitcom. To cite just one example, the gas industry bragged (often to investors and potential investors, but sometimes to the general public) that shale gas technology is all shiny and NEW, until the public got nervous, and then suddenly the industry tried to reassure everyone by saying that shale gas technology is very familiar and OLD. The internet made it very easy to find examples of both statements, to juxtapose them, and to share those juxtapositions with a LOT of people. And there are many, many examples of this sort of thing, because there are many, many lies being told by the industry.

    The shale gas and oil industry has two problems: 1) the first is a REALITY problem--their technology is not ready for prime time and may never be ready for prime time; 2) the second is a PR problem--the fact that their technology is not ready for prime time is very difficult to hide. Number 2 is true not only because of social media, but also because the industry decided to drill and frack in areas that are very accessible to large numbers of people. As soon as the gas wells were no longer in remote areas, the industry had a problem because many people could see firsthand the level of industrialization involved and the errors that the industry made and continues to make.

    As long as the industry views this mess as solely a PR problem, their problems will continue. Because underlying the PR is the fact that the technology is not ready for prime time. That's the REAL problem.

  3. Over the last few weeks there have been various stories about how the frackers are 'losing the PR war' to us, the grassroots.
    We turned to & rely on the internet & social media because it is virtually FREE and because we can share our message without dilution/editing/twisting.
    The fight against fracking may be just about PR to the frackers, for us living in / near the frackfields it is about SURVIVAL. We tell the truth, we don't get a paycheck from anyone.
    Our motivation is SURVIVAL, not a big fat payday.
    I guess people are starting to see the difference.

  4. I have to disagree with the central premise of this article! The "pr problem" is a reflection of the high-handedness with which the oil and gas industry treat the public and, really, anyone who isn't them. Their flagrant disregard is for what people think. That's an absolutist approach. They may as well be the King (or Queen) and say, "Just let them eat cake." Who cares what they think? We rule. Hence their "pr problem".

    For example, they never respond to criticism. Their general approach is to personally attack their critics rather than address the questions raised. I can't regard this as a "pr problem". Rather it is revelatory of an industry-wide attitude toward the public. Their pr flows directly from this general disregard for public health and safety.

    Even more, if you study their pr writings and presentations carefully, there is a crystal clear pattern. The people representing the industry to the public are never the technical people who know the complicated technical details of this extreme extraction industry which does much of its work in everyone's backyards. Rather it is always their pr people (who are often attorneys), and their message is always carefully crafted to avoid liability and promote a very benign picture of everything they do.

    1. Sue, are you talking about Levick’s article? To be clear, my post is not built on the premise or judgment that the industry’s PR struggles represent some kind of broader “problem.” It’s simply exploring the dynamics of the industry’s ineffectual attempts to control the message in the Internet age versus the more successful outcome for activists. PR people do what they are paid to do -- cast a positive light on things. To that end, it might be worth noting that they are up against committed volunteers (mostly) driven by values, ideals, and other motivating factors that go well beyond the 9 to 5.

    2. I think that what both Sue and I are saying is that the gas industry's PR problem is a symptom of fundamental problems within the industry. I noted in an earlier comment that the shale gas industry's technology is not ready for prime time, and that no amount of PR can hide that fact. And I think what Sue is saying is that the industry has a lack of respect for the general public and that that attitude colors (and undercuts) the industry's PR. Indeed, many of us have remarked over the years that a lot of industry PR is an insult to the intelligence of the intended audience. So, to sum up, I think the industry's "ineffectual attempts to control the message in the Internet age" reflect not only the power of the Internet and the commitment of anti-fracking volunteers, but also some severe problems with the industry's technology and its culture. There's only so much that even the most skillful PR person can do to try to paint a pretty picture of the great big mess that is shale gas development.

  5. Actually instead of Social Media being dominated by activists, it is far more accurate to say that Social Media creates activist. The once was quiet little boy from Arizona has found a new authority with the safeguard of the internet's anonymity. Now, he can say anything that he wants, and thus brings out the activist in him. I know a thing or two about Social Media Marketing because of a friend who works at a Local SEO Phoenix. I think if the Oil and Gas Industry wants to win this case then they should start fighting fire with fire. The only reason they will loose this battle is if they don't have a fighting chance and that is to say if it is obvious that there's no benefit in what they are trying to establish. Consumers nowadays are definitely SMART, so I don't think that social media has anything to do with why they are losing the market's favor.

    1. Nichole, you observation about anonymity rings true. It cuts both ways. It gives voice to those who may have once felt intimidated, but it also discourages accountability. For every person who posts anonymously, though, there are many who put their names on the line, and I thing that most readers still see an authentic name associated with a post as a primary test of credibility.

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