Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll might have said it best about the oil and gas industry and its growing public relations problem with hydraulic fracking.
In a recent interview with Politico
, Coll, who authored a book examining ExxonMobil, said, “I think they are in denial about how hard the politics of this is going to prove to be over time.”
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first set of guidelines to address air pollution associated with fracking. Meanwhile, elected leaders in shale-rich regions are growing more wary about the issues—thanks, in part, to concerned constituents and lobbying efforts of well-funded opposition groups.
But it’s not simply about politics; it’s the public perception of using fracking to tap into once unreachable natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process that requires large volumes of water and sand, and a smaller amount of chemicals. The high-pressure mixture is injected into drilled wells and the fluid fractures shale rock located deep underground. This process unlocks natural gas and has created an energy renaissance (of sorts) throughout the country and world.
Opponents of fracking claim the process increases harmful air emissions, contaminates drinking supplies, and leads to other environmental consequences. Even though natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel
and is readily abundant for many years, opponents continue to hammer at the lack of regulation and disclosure of chemicals used in the process. They want taxes on exploration companies to ease the impact on communities (for infrastructure needs and repairs) and point to several accidents that have occurred in recent years.
To that end, opponents have mobilized local grassroots coalitions, social media campaigns, scientists, legal experts, lobbying help, and more to curtail or potentially end this modern-day gold rush. While opponents execute a multi-pronged, simultaneous campaign, the industry continues to hang its hat on lobbying efforts and positive economic impact to local communities.
Unfortunately, this approach is the quickest way to lose public support and trust.
Don’t get me wrong, the positive economic story is a great piece of the overall campaign, but it is a small part of a much larger strategic approach needed to win the war. As a PR practitioner who has counseled clients on large environmental issues (energy, utility, landfill and transportation projects), I have witnessed first hand the importance of an aggressive, educational campaign.
Simply put, the industry should have kicked its PR offensive into overdrive long ago. Talk is growing cheap about jobs and positive economic impacts, and it is time for oil and gas companies to fight fire with fire. It is difficult to maintain support for a project when citizens keep reading misinformation that goes uncorrected from opponents that have a clear and biased agenda.
Of course, many citizens have legitimate concerns about fracking’s impact, and those issues must be addressed accurately and promptly.
In fact, these individual situations serve as perfect opportunities for companies to dig deep on a local, personalized level to educate residents, win support, and maintain public trust. In many instances, the industry continues to miss out on golden opportunities to educate about process, safety, and environmental measures.
This PR war is not going to be entirely won inside the Beltway, via social media, or in the press. The only way oil and gas companies will be able to stem the growing tide against fracking is by rolling up their sleeves, digging in, and winning the PR battles in each community.
Until they do so, expect to hear industry executives keep saying, “We’re late to our own party,” “The opposition is out in front,” or, “We have to win back public trust.”
By then, the opposition may have won the battle of perceptions—squashing another affordable and reliable source for energy. Just ask the coal industry.
Cory Stewart is vice president at Cookerly Public Relations in Atlanta. Prior to joining Cookerly, he held positions at Compass Bank in Birmingham, Ala., and at Fleishman-Hillard in Houston, Texas. A version of this story first appeared on the Cookerly PR blog PeRceptions.