How energy companies can win the Marcellus Shale public relations war

March 3, 2011

I had nothing more in the game than an intellectual curiosity. That’s what led me to write my last post about a Nielsen Buzzmetrics analysis that Gregory FCA conducted that showed declining public opinion for Marcellus Shale development. It’s a topic that is close to my heart simply because my family’s roots trace to the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania.

I have never forgotten their hardships and desires to build better lives for their children and grandchildren. Now that the fortunes of these areas are turning, thanks to a massive natural gas play buried some 10,000 feet below their lands, I wondered what the public thought of Marcellus Shale development.

The resulting study, which showed a drop in public opinion in both traditional and social media, should have been good news for the opponents to development. The study revealed that their public relations efforts are having an effect, and that the sentiment online, and in traditional media, is becoming more negative as the conversation heats up.

In that post, I also offered a game plan for how the industry needs to respond in order to turn sentiment back in its favor. You won’t be surprised to learn that my game plan won kudos from the industry and spurred a huge amount of criticism by opponents of Marcellus Shale development.

But what you might find surprising is that opponents did not pick up on the conclusions of the study and run with them. In short, the study showed that those against Marcellus Shale development are winning the hearts and minds of the general public. Their grassroots campaign has eroded sentiment toward shale development.

You would think they would welcome those conclusions and raise them as a flag to rally their base. Instead, they preferred to attack me, my credibility, and imply I have an ulterior motive. That might seem a strange tact to take, unless you understand public relations and the battle to win public opinion.

Such tactics make perfect sense, and are the reason behind the opposition’s success in turning public opinion. This got me thinking: “What can the industry learn from the tactics of its opponents?” Turns out, a lot. Here are some of my conclusions from the experience.

Never address the strong points of your opponent.

Marcellus Shale development is a much needed job creator at a time when unemployment in the U.S. remains above 9 percent. At the same time, a new, domestic source of clean energy is precisely the antidote to our dependence on foreign energy and the cost — in both dollars and lives — that we continue to pay.

This is a strong, valid argument. But not a single opponent acknowledged these points nor paid homage to two of the most pressing issues facing our country: The pain of unemployment and the dangers of dependence on foreign oil. In doing so, the opposition demonstrates the very tactic I recommended the industry adopt in my original post.

In order to control your message, you need to tell your own story and not fall victim to repeating that of your opponent. The response to my original post clearly illustrates that point and shows why opponents of Marcellus Shale development are effective in their storytelling.

Stick to your message.

The critics of my post overwhelmingly stuck to a single theme. Drinking water. It’s a simple message that stirs tremendous emotion. And it’s an effective public opinion tactic. By staying on message and hammering home one or two key points that are most illustrative of a position, the debater simplifies their position and assures that the audience walks away with a key, emotional issue stuck in their consciousness.

Plant suspicion.

I conducted the research as a result of my own curiosity. I wasn’t paid by big oil or gas. No one financed my work. Neither my firm nor myself work for any company with an interest in Marcellus Shale development. (DISCLAIMER: I started my career in the oil industry working in public relations for Conoco, but haven’t worked for an oil or coal company since 1986.)

Rather, my opinion and interests were formed by a personal connection to the region and what Marcellus Shale development would potentially mean to a people who for generations have suffered economically. Yet critics of my study were quick to suggest otherwise, and instead opted to float conspiracy theories. Many suggested that I was paid-off by big oil or a client’s interest.

This is absurd, considering the facts of the situation. The study found that Marcellus Shale opponents are winning. They are changing public sentiment and turning it more negative. Why would the industry want those results to be made public? Why would anyone argue that I was paid by the industry to publicize a failure of the industry? But conspiracy theory is an effective tactic in swaying public opinion.

I’ve written about how conspiracy theory plays a powerful role in storytelling before. It has the effect of overwhelming facts and supports conclusions that, if reviewed on the evidence, would be irrefutable. Seeding such conspiracy theories is a classic maneuver used by the grassroots with a degree of impunity that companies and industry don’t similarly enjoy.

With all this said, what takeaways can the industry learn from this small case study of public opinion monitoring and remediation?

Win on the facts.

I return to the argument made in my original post that the industry is simply not publishing enough facts. Facts have the attendant effect of seeping into the public consciousness and providing supporters with a framework for response and debate. Facts are also the currency of media relations.

The media is less interested in storytelling that’s based in opinion and conjecture. They need evidence. They need facts. Right now, those facts are all over the board. Search Google for “Size of Marcellus Shale Reserves” and you get all kind of answers. The industry needs to publish, and republish the facts so more and more of us can see the conclusions even as dust is kicked up and in our eyes.

Stick to the message.

The opponents have distilled their message down to one or two emotionally charged messaging points. The industry? Not so much. Marcellus Shale is about people, opportunity, jobs, clean energy, and energy independence from autocratic regimes. That’s a strong messaging platform that can overcome conspiracy theories and attack.

Don’t waste time with those who have made up their minds.

The industry needs to tell the story in places and media still open to persuasion. For instance, so much time has been spent criticizing the documentary “Gaslands” that it wastes time and energy that could be spent making real inroads into public opinion.

While such documentaries appear to be damaging to their subjects, they are simple exercises in preaching to the converted. These minds are never to be won because they are most susceptible to conspiracy theory and instinct over fact. They are closed, so let’s stop trying to pry them open.

What you can do, however, is tell your own story through media that appeals to open-minded consumers of opinion. And that returns me to a new genre of TV — blue collar reality TV — and shows such as “Ax Men,” “Gold Rush Alaska,” and “Orange County Choppers.”

In them, you see a part of America rarely laid bare to the public. Hard-working, risk-taking people who still believe in the Great American Dream that hard work deserves reward. And that risk is a natural part of endeavor.

That’s the real Gaslands, peopled by individuals like my grandfathers, who came to places like Helvetia, a long-ago abandoned deep mine in Pennsylvania. This is where Stosh Matusky and Amerigo DeChurch spent their lives toiling in deep, dark holes. They did so to make a better life for their children and grandchildren, and they succeeded.

For them and others like them, Marcellus Shale has the opportunity to reverse generations of despair in the Appalachian Basin by providing good, paying work in the mission of producing domestic clean energy. Delivering that opportunity is more and more a function of understanding public opinion and how to manage and control it, in order to find greater good.

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