Fracking industry must find its heart

It has become apparent in the past few months that Britain has huge reserves of gas that could be exploited by fracking - pumping chemicals and water deep underground at very high pressure to force open the rock and release the gas.

Anthony Hilton: 'Energy firms see PR in terms of the share price, not in the wider context of ensuring society gives them a licence to operate.'
Anthony Hilton: 'Energy firms see PR in terms of the share price, not in the wider context of ensuring society gives them a licence to operate.'

It would be hard to imagine a process better designed to make the local population nervous, so it was wholly predictable that there would be anti-fracking demonstrations, and these have already started. The industry is losing the PR battle before it has even begun.

The fracking industry badly needs to see itself as others see it. And help in doing that is at hand in a report last month by PR recruitment and research firm Watson Helsby called Refining reputation – the changing role of corporate affairs in the energy sector.

Though dealing with the wider issue of energy, the report highlights how it is almost in the nature of the industry to rub the public up the wrong way. Oil and gas exploration is frequently in the hands of larger than life characters whose obsessive focus on finding oil makes them oblivious to almost everything else.

But it runs deeper than a few individuals. For very good historical reasons the wider industry is in the hands of engineers (or geologists) who are comfortable dealing with tangible physical assets, but very uncomfortable with intangibles like reputation. 

They have an inclination to argue from the scientific standpoint to justify what they do or hope to do, but fail to understand how this is normally not the way to counter emotional hostility. Most firms in the sector still do not really get it. To the extent they appreciate PR, they see it in terms of the share price, not in the wider context of ensuring society gives them a licence to operate. 

Just because the energy industry can be inept in the way it communicates does not mean it is wrong. Indeed what it does is crucial to the prosperity of the country. The problem is that these days fact alone is either not sufficiently appreciated or no longer enough. So for all our sakes the industry needs to learn how to fight the emotional as well as the engineering and geological hazards in its path.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

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