MEDIA ROUNDUP: Alternatives have yet to transform energy coverage

Energy is a tough beat. The industry is not very proactive in its PR efforts, and energy is more issues-driven than image-driven. Even as the industry changes, fossil fuels and local coverage still rule.

Energy is a tough beat. The industry is not very proactive in its PR efforts, and energy is more issues-driven than image-driven. Even as the industry changes, fossil fuels and local coverage still rule.

From the impact that political uncertainty in Venezuela and the Middle East will have on oil prices, to the potential threat of terrorist attacks on the nation's nuclear power plants, to issues of global warming, coverage of the energy industry today is far more than a straightforward business story. But while it may seem that geopolitics is a relatively new angle to energy coverage - especially given the current administration and its past ties to the oil and natural-gas industries - Bob Tippee, editor of the leading trade publication Oil & Gas Journal, says, "It's always been there. Part of our news section is always devoted to geopolitical issues." Even in times when there's no looming international crisis, coverage of the energy beat is no easy task. It involves not only reporting on fossil fuels on a global scale, but also writing about hydropower, nuclear energy, and increasingly, alternative power sources such as solar and wind. In addition, Leslie Dach, vice chairman of Edelman says, "When you're covering energy, you can't separate it from the economy or the environment for very long." What makes energy reporting additionally difficult is that much of the coverage is occurring without a lot of participation from the energy companies themselves. Most of the larger energy concerns have robust internal corporate communications staffs, but their focus has historically been on investor and government relations rather than traditional media outreach. "Most of the energy companies are not as proactive in public relations as other industries," explains Charles Winner, president of Encino, CA-based Winner & Associates. "They tend to rely on the their associations to handle most of the PR functions." Indeed, you don't see a lot of personality-driven articles about oil-company executives, nor are many making appearances on CNBC or CNNfn to talk about their businesses. "A lot of the companies are very conservative - not in the political sense, but in their business philosophies," says Dach. "They have a large-enough footprint in the world, so they let their deeds speak for themselves." One reason for this is that, right or wrong, energy companies routinely find themselves under fire from activists representing environmental, economic development, and political concerns. So whether it's a rise in prices of heating oil or at the gas pumps, the scandals facing energy resellers such as Enron, or disasters that date back to the Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island, energy companies can't necessarily count on a lot of positive press. Location dictates coverage Outside of broad stories on the price of oil, gas, or electricity, the amount of energy coverage depends a great deal on where you live. There are dozens of reporters covering energy-related issues in Washington, DC, and there is usually strong coverage in areas where major energy concerns are located, such as the Bay Area, which is home to ChevronTexaco. But outside of those regions, the majority of coverage centers on the energy-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. The Houston area, for example, not only has several reporters on the Houston Chronicle covering parts of the oil and energy story, but also a host of trade magazines, such as Oil & Gas Journal and World Oil. But Annette Rogers, SVP with Fleishman-Hillard's Dallas office, notes that most major newspapers at least try to devote some space to energy-related issues. "At the top 50 newspapers, typically there's a reporter within the business section that is assigned to the oil, energy, and gas beat," she says. One persistent complaint about energy coverage is that it tends to reinforce public perceptions that are decades old. The use of seismic 3D imaging, multilateral drilling, and other advances have dramatically boosted the efficiency of energy-resource exploration and retrieval. But many Americans still carry the images of coal-miners with pickaxes or oil wildcatters arbitrarily drilling holes in hopes of getting lucky. "Most people's view of the coal industry is about 30 or 40 years out of date," says Carol Raulston, SVP of communications with the National Mining Association. "That goes for some of the reporters as well." One explanation is that even at its most dynamic, energy tends to be issues-driven rather than image-driven. As a result, the vast majority of the coverage is in print rather that broadcast. "The oil-and-gas industry isn't the most visual industry around, so it's not going to appeal to TV news outside of the Houston area," explains Dick Mullinax, SVP and partner in Fleishman's Dallas office. Trouble covering alternatives There are some exceptions, but even those have their drawbacks. The alternative-energy wind turbines introduced in the last few years present a striking visual image, but Christine Real de Azua, associate director of communications at the American Wind Energy Association, says, "It's difficult to get reporters to the sites because they're in really remote locations." It can also be tough to get energy reporters to write about things other than fossil fuel, in part because segments such as hydropower and nuclear tend to be complex and often lengthy regulatory stories. "It's tough getting any renewable [energy] on their radar screen," says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association. "I guess the bottom line is they're not that sexy." But Real de Azua does give journalists credit for their increasing willingness to write about alternatives to fossil fuels, especially as they grow more economically viable. "As wind power moves into the mainstream, we're getting more mainstream coverage," she says. "The calls we get tend to be a combination of general-interest reporters doing stories for the customer interested in buying "green" power, and a broad set of energy reporters. Energy tends to be covered primarily as a business or environmental story, though some say opportunities do exist for pitching the lifestyle press. "We have women's and family publications that have expressed interest in including us in stories," adds Fleishman's Rogers, who represents Green Mountain Power. "Their editors realize there's a strong consumer interest in environmental issues." But the PR tools that are used to attract energy reporters vary depending on the type of reporter and outlet you're pitching, as well as the energy concern you're representing. Steve Kerekes, director of media relations with the Nuclear Energy Institute, says his team actively tries to get reporters - including those on the environmental beat - out to nuclear power plants if possible. "We need to have more reporters visit our sites," he says. "I think there's a substantial number of journalists who have an open mind, and our job is to help them understand the new technologies that make nuclear energy safe." While she generally uses the traditional press release, Raulston says she has a list of about 40-50 key reporters that she tries to bring in for briefings if there's an upcoming issue or legislation impacting the coal industry. "We are also trying to drive reporters to our website," she adds. "We post a weekly newsletter, and journalists can also get a lot of other background information there on their own, and they call us with specific questions." ----- Where to go Newspapers most major dailies Magazines National Geographic; E/The Environmental Magazine; Sierra Magazine; BusinessWeek; Fortune Trade Titles Alternative Energy; CEE News; Coal Age; Electric Light and Power; Electrical World; Energy Daily; Energy Manager; Energy Markets; Gas Daily; Green Energy News; Hart's E&P; Hydro Review; Inside Energy; National Coal Leader; National Petroleum News; Nucleonics Week; Offshore; Oil & Gas Journal; Oil, Gas & Petrochem Equipment; Oilheating; Petroleum Intelligence Weekly; Pipe Line & Gas Industry; Platt's Oil News; Reuters Oil News; Solar Today; Wind Energy Weekly; World Oil TV & Radio CNNfn; CNN; CNBC; network news shows; NPR Web;;;;;

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