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

February 21, 2011

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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Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 1 month ago

To Greg Matusky – Great paper on the falling public opinion and the steps necessary to overcome this declining opinion. I particularly liked making the arguement about people and not addressing lunatic assertions because even addressing such assertions lends some credibility they do not deserve. Nice work.
Jim Daley, Director of Natural Gas & Energy Programs at Greenhorne & O'Mara

(This comment was submitted via e-mail and posted with Jim Daley’s permission on his behalf.)

Tim O'Brien
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6 years 1 month ago
Thanks for your post and yoru study. While it is very interesting, the one thing I don't like about the survey instrument (BuzzMetrics) is that it analyzes online commentary and content and then draws conclusions based on that. I don't think that it's best to draw correlations between the volume of online dissent and true public opinion. Based on what I've seen in other situations, special interests and the types of people most active in online debate tend to come from demographics that would be more prone to oppose Marcellus drilling. The types of people most likely to favor drilling… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 1 month ago

I hope you post negative comments. I find your use of rhetoric to control the public and get what you want (ie cash) reprehensible. Call me a lunatic fringe but I will not be led by the nose to believe that "fracking" is a good thing. Case in point; Dimock PA.

J. Stephen Cleghorn
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6 years 1 month ago
First, Mr. Matusky: Are you currently in the employ of the gas industry to provide public relations consultation and services? Are you getting paid for this blog? Second, I know Sykesville, PA very well. I go to Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church there, where we recently held a public forum on Marcellus. We invited 3 gas companies to attend the forum – Consol, EXCO and Range Resources. We sent our presentation to them beforehand to make sure we had our facts reasonably correct and got their point of view into the discussion. Not one of them decided to… Read more »
M L Keith, Cooperstown, NY
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M L Keith, Cooperstown, NY
6 years 1 month ago
I live in a lovely, rural area near one of New York's most beautiful lakes. Why should this become a "gas patch" with truck convoys, waste water pits,and unproven fracking techniques that have demonstrably polluted wells in Pennsylvania and other areas? The gas industry apparently believes this is just a PR problem. Wrong. It is not "clean energy" when our landscape will be destroyed by drilling rigs, pads and waste water pits. Just trust us says the industry. Besides we will make a lot of money. But the economic impact of gas drilling is not so clear for the locals.… Read more »
larry
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6 years 1 month ago

Larry Bennett, Cooperstown NY.

Labeling all who question fracking the Marcellus and other shales as part of "the lunatic fringe" is absurd. There are plenty of open questions about the efficacy of the technology, about the potential of financial gain, even about where the gas will ultimately be sold. In this country we get to decide on critical issues by free and open debate, and demonizing others is typical of spin-doctoring and not of honest debate.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 27 days ago
There is so much here to criticize, but I'll just say that I have two young children, ages 9 months and 4 years, am employed in several positions, including as a professor of environmental studies, and three years ago I founded a regional environmental organization. We actually had other things to do when we started, such as building a local food system, creating thousands of new jobs in the energy efficiency retrofitting industry, bringing community development financial institutions to our area, and other measures that will be far more beneficial (and less harmful) that then author's beloved gas production strategy.… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 27 days ago

Fracking ruins the water and while there are many substitutes for gas, there is no substitute for water. Heavy metals and many contaminants are forever. They can't be filtered out. For example – they dissolve the membranes in reverse osmosis.

Environmentalists, otherwise known as sensible people who understand science, will not support a process that ends with contaminated water.

annie
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6 years 27 days ago
Wow, all of us who don't want to lose our water, clean air and quiet don't work?!!! That's a nice assumption based on nothing. Most of my neighbors have leased and deeply regret it. They are scared to death of what they will lose because the landman lied. Most of them are farmers or loggers who still leave their doors unlocked. You are wrong about most people being for drilling in the Marcellus Shale. In my county 28 percent of the land is leased and it represents 19 percent of the population. The majority will pay. The majority if you… Read more »
Joseph
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6 years 27 days ago

I am a taxpayer not a "lunatic" or enviornmentalist and I know that local taxpayers are expected to accept increased local taxes to pay for the following effects of fracking: road ruin, excessive traffic, increased demand for social, police, jail, drug, & emergency services, short and long term effects of dust & air pollution, while residential property values go down and rents go up driving long term residents out. All this with no ability to charge high profit energy companies with the costs. Its not boom/bust for locals, it is bust/bust.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 27 days ago
I beg to disagree with Mr. Matusky -I am gainfully employed and I use all of my spare time or most of it, to find out and share the facts.I have immersed myself in this subject for over three years because I live in a community and a state that was not prepared for what is occurring and has been taken over by this industry. Simply because I do not come to the same conclusions as the industry that signs his paycheck does not mean I am wrong or that I spread lies. He however is paid to smear dedicated… Read more »
BJ
Guest
6 years 27 days ago
What TR said after he was presidentis very true, Every movement has it's lunitic fringe. The people that want drilling have their fringe just like the rural landowners that oppose the natural gas drilling process. Then there is the process that is uses to silence people that speak up. In Andrew Jacksons day these tactics would have ended with a duel. The industry has lost it's honor and too many people know that now. The resouces to change this will only make the gas companies look like Johns Manville Corp. with the phrase Asbestos the wonder material.
M. Goodsell
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M. Goodsell
6 years 27 days ago
What about those who have chosen to fight for the cause and use every free minute to do so? Or what about those who value well being as opposed to having lots of cash? What about those who chose to stay home and raise a family and juggle work from home as well? Are you implying that the naysayers are negligent in doing their "homework" ? Aren't we proving who's spreading faleshoods? And aren't they being paid to do so? Afterall the industry has hired PR firms who could say 'no'. Are you implying that the gainfully employed are pro-drilling?… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 27 days ago

Well said, thank you

J. Stephen Cleghorn
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6 years 27 days ago
Thank you. Mr. Matusky, for posting my comment. I have been idling away my day (not to the purpose of naysaying as you might think) taking care of three goat births, two of which resulted in fatalities. In the last case, as I write, the first-time mother is keeping vigil over the still whimpering but doomed body of her baby, pulling at it to get up, lying beside it in that hope of life. I have had to take two kids out to end their lives with a .22 rifle to spare further suffering. Yet we have managed so far… Read more »
C.H.
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C.H.
6 years 27 days ago
I agree with Stephen Cleghorns post and would also wonder if you are employed by the gas industry to provide public relations services. I can only assume you are.If so, I would liken you to a lawyer who has taken on a murderer and rapist for a client knowing full well they were guilty, but only careing about a paycheck. I would hope you would accept Mr. Cleghorn's challenge to every point you make about shale gas drilling benefits.I have watched this presentation and it is very well researched. I will follow with the link to it. Watch it and… Read more »
Joep
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6 years 27 days ago
It's good yo analyze how public opinion sways in different directions, but the key element seems to be the global awakening in regard to isolated operations of companies involved in fracking. Public opinion changes everytime new information is added to the reservoir of knowledge. Where, a couple of years ago, the monopoly of information was in hands of the companies involved, it is now shifting to the factual situation and people are putting this new factual information next to the initial information provided by the fracking companies. Sadly enough, there is a huge gap between promises and facts. It's my… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 27 days ago
Given the material Mr. Matusky presented, and the fact moderation is allowing drilling opponents' posts, that alone is more than I can say about certain extremist anti-drill sites. "Beat them with facts" vs "never responding to the supposed negatives" – the facts alone stand for themselves. The facts are absolute – what has been observed. "Supposed" negatives include the over-the-top crystal ball predictions that the world will end as we know it if we continue to allow hydraulic fracturing. The one thing I have noticed with many drilling opponents, regardless of the supposed concerns, is they don't care where companies… Read more »
Gloria in Pittsburgh
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Gloria in Pittsburgh
6 years 25 days ago
Wow, you dusted off the time worn & tedious playbooks of the coal industry, labeling the opposition "lunatic fringe", really? The people involved in fighting fracking are tax paying, law abiding, voters. They are researching, they are learning, they are talking to their neighbors. One thing they are NOT is: paid shills for the drilling industry. We are making it "about the people", the people who live next to a gas well, the people who no longer have drinkable water from their wells, the people whose kids go to schools where drillers want to set up shop. "Dominate the discussion"… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 25 days ago
Alternative energy is not just an idealistic dream. It is a necessity in the struggle to control climate change. Methane (natural gas) may burn clean but it is not clean as it is produced. It is a powerful greenhouse gas, at least 20 times more destructive than CO2 in the "short run" (first 100 years). Why do you think scientists are worried about the melting of the permafrost?But maybe you don't believe in climate change. We know that no industry will sacrifice itself for the greater good. Stockholders wouldn't allow that. So, of course, you lobby, pour millions into the… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 25 days ago

Looks as though my comment contained too much truth. Here is another fact you won't like. Our leading oil and gas imports are from Canada and Mexico.
Now, if a nation really hates us, they would support you all the way, as you are destroying parts of the Rocky Mountains, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, and threatening the Finger Lakes of NY as well as the cities of Philadelphia and New York City.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 25 days ago
I invite you to my house for a drink of our water…anytime you can make it…I'll even add ice if you like. We didn't lease, but all our neighbors did.On 2/9/11 our water turned black. We can't drink it, cook with it, do our laundry, or bathe. We've been advised to take our animals and move out.(I have been getting progressively more ill since last May((when they drilled a well a mile away)), and have dropped 30lbs)I have been to many doctors and have had so many blood tests and other tests I've lost count.It would be nice to know… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 25 days ago

I knew my comment wouldn't make it…you don't want the facts. I'm going to encourage every person who has gotten ill from the effects of drilling to write you and speak out. This is what is referred to as "yellow" journalism. Truth was too hard to take I guess.

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