Monday, February 21, 2011

Are we winning or losing the public relations battle on Marcellus Shale?

Posted by Greg Matusky
What could be the most important new source of clean, domestic energy has hit headwinds in the court of public opinion. New research shows that public sentiment about Marcellus Shale development is positive, but that sentiment is falling. The oil and gas industry now needs to act to shore up public opinion and guarantee that America benefits from this vital natural resource.

America's most important new source of clean, domestic energy is a massive geographic structure buried 9,000 feet beneath some of the most economically depressed regions of our country.

Stretching from West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania through Western New York State, Marcellus Shale, a geographic formation formed some 400 million years ago, holds more than 10 years of domestic natural gas supply for the Northeast, and that estimate could be low.

For years, the gas was inaccessible. But new drilling technologies are liberating this vast national resource, and bringing it to the surface to warm U.S. hearths and homes, and power businesses. If ever there was a good news story about U.S. energy, Marcellus Shale is it.

It should fall on the right side of everyone's best interests, even environmentalists. Gas is clean. Development technology creates jobs in the Appalachian Basin, which has been economically depressed since the Kennedy administration.

The Marcellus Shale band also lies close to Northeast markets where energy is most needed. The natural gas flowing from these formations is a surefire silver bullet to reducing our trade deficits and reliance on imported oil, providing a more stable America.

Yet, the critics are circling, throwing up phantom environmental issues and clamoring to tax a nascent industry out of existence while other, less economical and environmental energy sources sop up a huge number of taxpayer dollars in the form of government handouts.

These forces are trying to derail what is a certain windfall for American consumers, the environment, our economy, and our competitive standing. How much impact are they having? For a long time, very little.

But in a study conducted by Gregory FCA, a top-30 national public relations firm, and using Nielsen's BuzzMetrics tool to survey more than 100 million online and traditional media comments, it was discovered that positive public sentiment to Marcellus Shale development in both traditional media and social media is slowly eroding, as some environmentalists make Marcellus Shale their cause célèbre, and as the media take a more negative turn in their reporting.

Since the beginning of 2010, the positive sentiment in traditional media for Marcellus Shale has fallen dramatically, from a high of +3.1 to a low of -0.3 in January 2011. The rating falls on a 10-point scale with -5 being the most negative sentiment and +5 being the most positive sentiment. Zero reflects neutral sentiment.

An investigation into social media, or online discussions and conversations about Marcellus Shale, shows a similar deterioration. For most of 2010, online commenters were positive to Marcellus Shale development, averaging a positive sentiment that ranged between +3 and +4. But late in the year, that goodwill and sentiment began to turn less positive, and was only +1.1 in January 2011.

What does this mean to the industry? Marcellus Shale offers the oil and gas industry a rare opportunity to catalyze public sentiment to align with its business objectives. What's called for is an industry-wide effort to tell an overwhelmingly positive story that will swamp a few, vocal critics and move our combined national energy agenda forward. Here is what is required.

1. Beat them on the facts and publish an ocean of information about the value of Marcellus Shale. Prima facie evidence shows that Marcellus Shale is good for consumers, the economy, the environment, and our country. The problem is that naysayers -- who often aren't under the same time constraint as gainfully employed Americans -- have more idle time to plant falsehoods, raise suspicions, and demonize the oil and gas industry. Marcellus Shale has every fact on its side. Those facts need to be pushed out again and again through digital and traditional media, and embedded in every message radiating out of the industry. Facts are powerful, and when they are in your favor, they must be leveraged in every story that is told.

2. Never respond to the supposed negatives. Too often, the industry only amplifies the criticism of the lunatic fringe by addressing falsehoods. The industry needs to speak in a clear, positive voice that constantly focuses the conversations on the common-sense value of development. Marcellus Shale is about domestic reserves of clean energy of natural gas that will reduce our nation's carbon footprint. By only speaking to the positives and never addressing the negatives, the industry will assure its story is more accurately told.

3. Make it about people. Marcellus Shale will do more good for the Appalachian Valley than anything since the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson. As a boy growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I remember the open sewers and the abject poverty of places like Sykesville, Pa., where my parents grew up, and how small investments in roads, rail, and water treatment yielded huge benefits. The people of Marcellus Shale are fierce, noble individuals who have been ignored for generations. The industry needs to celebrate the opportunity that Marcellus Shale offers them, and make their stories of economic renewal a mainstay of the storytelling. Reality TV paves the way with shows such as "Ax Men," "Deadliest Catch," and "Gold Rush: Alaska" reeducating the world to the value of honest work, risk taking, and the responsible harvesting of natural resources. The industry should underwrite a similar show to illustrate how Marcellus Shale is giving an entire generation of blue-collar Americans new hope and opportunity.

4. Dominate the online discussion. Traditional media appear to be turning the conversation negative. After all, it's the media's job to be skeptical. But digital media provide the means to craft and distribute a narrative directly to the ultimate consumer. The industry needs to dominate online conversations as a way to positively impact consumers, regulators, influencers, and ironically, the traditional media, which often find the spark of their reporting through online buzz.

5. Connect the dots for the public. How does Marcellus Shale provide a cleaner world? What is the economic impact on the real people of Marcellus Shale? How can we create a more stable world by reducing our dependence on foreign oil? How can our government ever hope to balance a budget if far-off cleaner energy, such as wind and solar, requires tremendous government subsidies, at the very time we are laying off teachers, firemen, and policemen? The connections are obvious to those inside the industry. But to outsiders, it's not so clear. The new narrative of Marcellus Shale must connect the dots so the public understands the vital national importance of this all-too-good-to-be-true opportunity for our country.

6. Language is important. The very term "fracking" has a negative connotation, and scores lower in public sentiment than terms such as Marcellus Shale. A better, more positive term is warranted. The industry needs to identify negatively charged words and replace them with positive language. The Marcellus phenomenon is liberating clean energy. It's reducing dependence on foreign oil produced in unstable regions of the world. It's creating a safer, more competitive America. It's eliminating the need to transport highly volatile energy halfway around the world. It's building lives, growing businesses, offering hope where hope has disappeared. Words drive public opinion. The industry needs to control the story by controlling the lexicon through creative, positive words that tell a vivid story and lock out the language of critics.

All and all, Marcellus Shale is a once-in-a-lifetime story that connects with the most important issues of our time. The need for clean energy. The power of private enterprise. The ability to transform lives and the drive to keep our country competitive. The industry must beat back critics through oceans of facts, human-scale storytelling, positive words, and positioning to tell a story that is bigger than this single moment in time.

Marcellus Shale is the America energy story of our age, as important as the day Edwin Drake discovered oil locked beneath the very lands that define the Marcellus Shale region. It's vital that the industry takes control of this story in order to assure the benefits of Marcellus Shale for generations of future Americans.

UPDATE 3/8/11: I have responded to all of the comments in this post.
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