The U.S. shale revolution, which flooded the domestic market with both natural gas and opposition to the hydraulic fracturing drilling technique, now needs to stage its own public relations uprising, speakers said this week at an industry event in Denver.
From Reagan to Twitter, the industry needs to use a variety of campaign tools if it wants to win over the broad swath of Americans caught in the middle of the hydraulic fracturing debate, communication experts said. Many Americans are still on the fence in the shale debate, between industry fans and detractors who say it wrecks the environment or just don't want it in their backyards.
Among other strategies, a "Reagan-esque" message of American self-sufficiency might help them understand the industry's side, one communications expert advocated.
Brand image specialist Scott Goodson, founder and CEO of StrawberryFrog, said the message for the oil and gas industry to push is that the shale revolution has created self-sustaining energy supplies for the country, a la former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's noted communication techniques.
"Think Reagan in his heyday. American exceptionalism. Oil and gas leading the way," he said, speaking at a Colorado Oil & Gas Association conference panel devoted to how the industry can combat misinformation and improve its image in the U.S.
This would give the majority in the middle a clear path in the debate, the speakers said.
"Trying to find a place in the sensible middle is really hard to do," panel moderator Susan Tierney said.
Tierney, managing principal at consulting firm Analysis Group, was one of seven members of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board on shale gas production charged with finding ways to improve the performance of shale drillers last year.
She noted that intense activity in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale had ignited "intense passions," feelings that haven't healed as drilling continued.
For many opponents in the Marcellus, "fracking" represents the entire process of natural gas extraction from drill bit to burner tip. For the industry, fracking is a distinct part of the process. But really, Tierney said, the argument is between environmentalists who envision a "non-fossil fueled world and a fossil-fueled world."
One company representative said the industry has lagged in the communcation department.
"Industry has done things the way they have done it for years," Chesapeake Energy's Digital Communication Manager Blake Jackson said. "We talk about it [listening to communities], we're not living it."
Chesapeake's social media effort is directed at "the middle" as they express their concerns directly and indirectly about company operations through Facebook and other social media sites, Jackson said.
"The conversation is with the middle but that middle doesn't have the education," Jackson said. "If the industry isn't speaking to the people in the middle, the extreme element is."
Chesapeake set up its social media department in 2009 when the three main opponents to Chesapeake's Marcellus operations were actor Mark Ruffalo, film director Josh Fox of "Gasland," and the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.
Jackson said Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake's social media team focuses on reassuring individuals and communities through social media that the company's operations are safe using three bywords: transparency, acceptability, and respect. Even folks who write to wish that everyone at the nation's second largest gas producer "would die" get a polite response aimed at understanding where the opposition comes from, he said.
Goodman added that such online efforts—a new communications force since the Reagan era—are also key, given how virtual uprising can force companies to change tacts.
Online "uprisings are happening all the time," he said noting the pushback against the Susan B. Komen breast cancer foundation when it dropped its support of Planned Parenthood and the online scream that forced the Bank of America to reverse its policy of monthly charges to maintain debit card accounts.
"You want to build supporters, no, not just supporters, fans," Goodson said. "Ditch the pitch. People don't listen when a company talks about itself."