The oil and gas industry is being forced to cope with ‘Lightning Rods of Controversy’

The other day while meeting with a journalist, my client fielded what some would consider a “softball” question.

 “Do you think we are being silly, to be so concerned with fracking and its impacts?”

The answer? Done responsibly and with the proper regulation, fracking has proven to be good for the national economy, lucrative for regions across the country and essential to the United States achieving its goal of energy independence.

The reporter nodded and the interview continued.

We fielded the same question in the next meeting and in the one after that. Clearly, this was one of the KEY questions of the day.

In reality, this wasn’t a softball question at all. These reporters were based in London, where the issue of hydraulic drilling was– and still is – being widely and emotionally debated. Meanwhile, shale oil and gas development in the UK is years behind the U.S.

There is a global interest, even fascination, in the future of fracking. The appetite for information regarding the oil and gas industry, with its growing economic and political impacts, is an opportunity to be proactive and tell the growing number of stories that are emerging. The alternative is to react like a pinball, careening from issue to issue and coping with the uncertainty associated with the next hot button. A lack of communications vision threatens the momentum of an industry that is so important to Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma and other states and nations.

Already, a Pew Research Center poll indicates the U.S. public’s embrace of fracking is waning and its  opposition is growing.

Consider the list of woes the oil and gas industry has been associated with:

  • Increased oil and gas spills
  • Increased air releases of methane, a greenhouse gas
  • Excessive water use and groundwater pollution
  • And now, for the first time in history, the government is linking fracking with earthquakes!

The Wall Street Journal has labeled these issues and their brethren, “Lightning Rods of Controversy.” If you work in the industry and don’t think that spells trouble, then I have an injection well over a fault line to sell you!

During an Ohio Oil and Gas Association meeting earlier this year, the audience was queried about their communication strategies. On a scale of 1-5, they were asked, how ambitious do you want your communications to be?

One person raised his hand. “I almost want us to be a ZERO,” he said. “The media are so against us, that I would rather we not say anything and hope they will leave us alone.”

I understand the sentiment. No one wants to approach the media feeling that they already have two strikes against them. But remember, we are talking about one of the most prominent and exciting sectors of the U.S. economy. One that is creating jobs, triggering mergers and investment, and above all, is involved in “Lightning Rods of Controversy!”

Even a communications novice knows that the media are unlikely to leave you alone. You are too important. You impact too many lives. And you represent too many good stories.

So, if the media are going to cover you, why not take the opportunity to communicate the stories you wish to share? Wouldn’t you rather communicate the positive impacts on your communities, the jobs you are creating and the lives you are improving? Don’t you want to improve your talent recruitment and retention by communicating your workplace safety record, the opportunities for advancement and the technological innovations you are developing?

You don’t think it’s possible to communicate this way through the media? Of course, it isn’t always possible. There are times when the media pursue a story you would rather not address. But for every unpleasant story, there are likely three others you could convey that would help improve your ties to your community, impress shareholders, attract talent, generate new business or improve employee morale.

Consider this recent headline in The Wall Street Journal:

Energy Companies Try New Methods to Address Fracking Complaints.” The article, which also used the “Lightning Rods of Controversy” term, examined the technologies companies are developing to overcome problems.

The article credits Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil for experimenting with an innovative approach to reducing flaring, while utilizing a mobile natural gas compressor system from General Electric. Suddenly, “Lightning Rods” become “pioneering technologies.” Suddenly, a problem becomes an innovation that drives progress. Suddenly, Statoil’s efforts, communicated to the reporter, become a good story that improves the company’s image. Suddenly, Statoil is ahead of the story, rather than playing from behind.

In my April 15 blog post, “Ohio Report on Earthquakes Hits Shale Gas Industry,” I offer five questions to help oil and gas companies evaluate their communications strategies.

Let me add a sixth: Do you feel good about your company’s connections to key audiences?

As fracking becomes increasingly prevalent, and additional billions are invested to develop the Utica, Marcellus and other shale formations across the United States and around the world, industry leaders will ask themselves and their communications teams these questions and many more. In the coming weeks, we will discuss how to generate story ideas, communicate the stories you wish to share, and cope with those that reporters bring your way.

Want to know more?

Meanwhile, if you would like to share your observations of the industry’s “Lightning Rods of Controversy,” or connect with me directly, please drop me an email or call me at 216.241.2145.

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