By Kellen Klein, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Future 500
Dear Fracking Industry,
This whole “shale boom” thing has been a bit of a mixed bag, hasn’t it?
On the one hand, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have launched America into an unprecedented era of energy abundance. Thanks to you, we’ve drastically reduced our dependence on oil and gas imports – down 44 percent and 58 percent, respectively, in the last five years – while driving down utility costs for the domestic manufacturing sector.
On the other hand, you haven’t exactly made many friends along the way.
Many of you have witnessed protests first hand, and decided that the best course of action is to pull the shades and wait for the storm to blow over. That tends to work for a few days or months, but rarely addresses stakeholders’ broader, underlying concerns. Others have launched an impressive counter-strike, elevating their own perspectives and filing lawsuits while charging onward into new shale plays. But that hasn’t worked out that well either, has it?
Fracking protests at an exploration site in New Brunswick cost Southwestern Energy over $60,000 per day; activists forced Cuadrilla Resources to put their fracking plans on hold in Balcombe, England; and your friends at ExxonMobil can probably share a lesson or two about the costs of stakeholder activism (spoiler alert: it includes nine zeroes).
In order to move forward, let’s agree on something – most people aren’t buying your story.
Fracked gas may indeed be “cleaner” than coal, a boon to the economy and the “bridge fuel” to a low carbon future, but it doesn’t matter if all anyone can talk about is flaming tap water. Josh Fox’s 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland caught you all a bit off guard, and you’ve been battling against that haunting narrative ever since.
So on the eve of the next major fracking protest, perhaps it’s time for a different approach. If the fracking industry really hopes to regain its social license to operate, there are a few things you might consider doing:
1) Start talking about the right stuff
Shale developers have done a fantastic job highlighting fracking’s positive impacts on the economy, energy security, and even greenhouse gas reduction goals (maybe). But while industry waxes poetic about the greater good, campaigners and community coalitions are much more concerned with possible impacts on water resources and human health. In a 2013 poll of Michigan and Pennsylvania residents, the top four perceived “risks related to fracking” were water contamination, groundwater/well contamination, health issues, and pollution/chemicals.
A quick scan of the websites of prominent fracking campaigners like Food & Water Watch and Oil Change International can confirm – jobs mean nothing if they come at the expense of community well-being. So while I’m not suggesting you start throwing every permit-violating wildcatter under the bus, don’t expect to stymie stakeholder activism by ignoring the elephants in the room.
2) Start talking in the right way
Here at Future 500, we frequently advise companies on how to engage with their stakeholders in a way that’s systemic, innovative, and lasting. Above all else, we stress one word – Humanization. Unfortunately, when stakeholders look at the fracking industry, most see a monolith rather than a human face. For those that do see a face, the words that face is saying just don’t resonate. A recent survey by Resources for the Future found that “although information provided by [the oil and gas] industry changes [public] attitudes…it is as likely to lose supporters as increase support.”
In other words, pro-fracking ads on NPR might not be the best way to go. If corporations are “people” too – a point drillers in New Mexico have sued to uphold – perhaps they should start acting a bit more human. That means acknowledging mistakes, listening more than talking, and knocking on doors before problems arise rather than after.
3) Get your stakeholders to understand and tell your story
Of course, saying “the right things” isn’t worth much when nobody trusts the source. Such is the case for much of the oil and gas industry. While trust in the energy sector has risen slightly in the past five years, you’re also intimately tied to an ever-mistrusted government. Earning the trust you want is going to take some time, even if you are taking steps in the right direction. So in the meantime, why not put any news worth sharing in the hands of those who the public does trust – NGOs.
The public still firmly believes that companies – energy sector included – can “do well by doing good.” Consequently, many of your stakeholders are yearning for more stories that affirm that notion. If you think you’ve got good news, don’t be afraid to vet it with an NGO or two. Chances are they’ll give good feedback, and if they like it, they know how to get the word out.
Regardless, the stories NGOs share about you – bad or good – generally spread farther and faster than anything you publish. So what sounds better – having America’s Natural Gas Alliance send another PR-vetted tweet to its 21,300 followers, or having fracking campaigner Yoko Ono sing of industry improvements to her 4.68 million followers?
Just to clarify, I am not suggesting you start throwing your money at organizations in return for some new spin and a fresh voice. That didn’t work out too well last time. No, I’m suggesting that you…
4) Give them something worth talking about
NGOs are really good at fighting fire with fire. But you know what they like even better than corporate missteps and scandal? Progress.
That means moving beyond PR and storytelling and allowing your actions to speak for you. When that happens, NGOs have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to sing your praises (while still raising the bar). As The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva explains, “Drama and conflict sell. But so does vision. Be visionary.”
Now this doesn’t mean going it alone.
In fact, proactive engagement and collaboration with your stakeholders is the fastest path to environmental and economic progress. A great example happened just last week, when industry, regulators and NGOs came together in Colorado to pass landmark regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas production. Anadarko Petroleum’s environmental health and safety director genuinely humanized the company in the eyes of NGOs and the public, explaining that “We all live here, we all have families here and work here and we want to have clean air.”
And sure enough, NGOs came out in force to applaud the good news.
That’s how it’s done, people.
Fracking industry, it’s clear that you’ve got your work cut out for you. But most of us realize that you’re going to be around for a while, and are eager to help make you safer while you’re here. So stop proselytizing and start humanizing, and I guarantee you’ll find more stakeholders wanting to join your circle of trust.
Best of luck,
Some guy who wants it to work
About the Author:
Kellen Klein is a Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.
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