I was fascinated to read Corey Stewart’s recent article on PR Daily
arguing that energy companies are losing the war over hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”
While Mr. Stewart presented no real evidence to support his conclusion, his suspicions appear to make sense. After all, the world is much more aware of hydraulic fracturing and its impact on the environment, job creation, and U.S. energy policy than it was even a scant two or three years ago.
For the past two years, my firm has been benchmarking public sentiment with regard to hydraulic fracturing as part of our work in the industry. Here at ground zero, in Pennsylvania, public opinion about hydraulic fracturing, and how it’s transforming our economy, is front and center on political, environmental, and economic agendas.
That’s why it’s important to be accurate in our assessment of the topic and to provide clear estimates of how the winds of public sentiment are blowing. Surprisingly, research shows that the industry, while at first slow to foresee and respond to negative public perception, has made significant progress in telling an accurate, positive story about an energy source that is cleaner, abundant, and domestically controlled.
Mr. Stewart is calling on the industry to do more to educate the public as to the benefits of hydraulic fracturing and its limited risks, and to do it through a multi-prong approach.
If you study the industry’s response, however, that is exactly what is taking place. Again, while slow at first to respond, the industry has since identified the facts and effectively communicated them in both the news media and social media. Groups such as Energy In Depth Northeast, The Marcellus Shale Coalition, and The American Petroleum Institute have worked hard to communicate on a national level, as well as to hyper local audiences. And contrary to Mr. Stewart’s assertion, progress is being made on winning the war of public perception.
For instance, the benchmark studies we have been conducting over the past two years, using data from NM Incite's BuzzMetrics, a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey & Company, and the global leader in social media insights, shows that sentiment in both the news media and social media is positive, and it’s slowly improving.
For instance, when we conducted our first study that looked back all the way to October 2010, the term “fracking” had a positive sentiment score of +1.3 on a scale in which negative 5 is the lowest, most negative score; plus 5 is the most positive score. Today, that sentiment stands at +1.9. Even more heartening, the sentiment around Marcellus Shale, a topic that dominates 43 percent of all conversations about hydraulic fracturing, has steadily improved over the past year, from a negative sentiment score of -.3 in September 2011 to a positive sentiment score of +4.1 in September 2012.
While public perception has fluctuated greatly over the 12 months, overall a positive trajectory suggests that the industry as a whole is meeting the challenge and doing so through a number of communications tactics, including:
Mr. Stewart is right on the mark when he suggests that the industry was slow at the onset to communicate the benefits of hydraulic fracturing. But since that time, it has developed a number of sophisticated tools for correcting the record and bringing truth to light. For evidence, send a Friend Request on Facebook to Energy In Depth Northeast and you will see how a well-executed rapid response campaign can effectively throttle junk science and grassroot hyperbole.
Equally as effective has been the industry’s willingness to engage opponents directly and argue their case in the court of public opinion. No company has done a better job of carrying the message than Chesapeake Energy, which for many of us, serves as an important news source that counters negative perceptions in the marketplace.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition.
The MSC’s ability to constantly produce, publish, and distribute facts has made the organization the go to pro-industry source for news and information that is grounding the conversation in science and logic, and their lobbying efforts have equally advanced the cause throughout the country.
Public opinion advertising.
A massive investment on the part of the industry by The American Petroleum Institute and others has served to seed facts into the market of public opinion and provide supporters with tools and information they can use to educate others. This investment is reaping benefits as our studies demonstrate.
No other vehicle has done more damage to hydraulic fracturing than the Josh Fox Academy Award-nominated movie “Gaslands.” But since its nomination, the industry, with help from independent filmmaker Phelim McAleer, who is producing a pro-development film on his own, has done much to publicize the inaccuracies of “Gaslands” to the point that today, the public isn’t so open to Fox’s storytelling techniques.
None of this is to say that more communications and information isn’t warranted. However, those of us who have been tracking the topic closely do see progress and believe that this issue presents a textbook example of how the public relations industry can do good for our economy, for our national security, and for our environment.
Greg Matusky is founder and president of Gregory FCA, a top 50 US public relations firm that serves energy companies across the country. He is also a founder and president of the Delaware Valley Marcellus Association.