WASHINGTON: The surge in gas prices this summer has kept the oil industry and consumer groups busy explaining to reporters and the public the myriad factors that determine what motorists pay at the pump.
Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the Gulf of Mexico last week also put energy industry officials in the spotlight, as reporters sought information on potential damage to offshore oil rigs and coastal refineries.
"Our strategy is to get ahead of inquiries so we can help people understand what goes into gas pricing," said Jim Craig, director of media relations at the American Petroleum Institute (API). "To do so, we have economists who can describe these things and help reporters understand the economics of oil."
Craig said the volume of press calls had been exceedingly high in recent weeks because of rising gas prices. After Katrina hit, media interest became "phenomenal."
AAA has regularly warned its 47 million members across the nation about the high costs of driving this summer. AAA Mid-Atlantic, for example, decided to issue one-page media alerts when the price of gasoline hit a new record.
"Instead of wearing out our welcome and doing these convoluted, deeply analytical releases, we went to more of a bullet format," said John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs in AAA Mid-Atlantic's Washington office.
Townsend said that, as a DC-based group, AAA Mid-Atlantic has used local media as a megaphone to convey to policy makers in Congress that high energy costs could have a devastating impact on the whole economy. "All members of Congress have homes in the DC area," he said. "They watch the local news, too."
Dealing with Congress typically is the job of AAA's national office, he said. But that office focuses more on traditional lobbying than media relations. Hence, Townsend and his staff approached local DC media to tell the motorists' side of the story, hoping to raise awareness among lawmakers.
API is pleased with how the media have focused on the laws of supply and demand - not manipulation by oil companies - when reporting on soaring gasoline prices.
"In the past year or so, the coverage has been very fair. It's as if they get it," Craig said. "They understand the economics of it, and they're reporting it that way. And I have reason to believe consumers have a better understanding of it because of that."