Energy industry struggles to fix 'fracking' PR

Energy companies are in the midst of aggressive PR campaigns to combat the perception that natural gas extracted from shale formations is bad for the environment and for investment.

Energy companies are in the midst of aggressive PR campaigns to combat the perception that natural gas extracted from shale formations is bad for the environment and for investment.

“We have not typically been an industry that talks a lot, because we're run mostly by engineers,” said Karen Matusic, media relations adviser for Exxon Mobil, the largest producer of natural gas in the US. “But we need to talk to the public and answer those questions and concerns, or our opponents will be out there answering them for us.”

They already have been. Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times published a series of front-page articles critical of the industry, including one on June 26 that suggested natural gas is overhyped as a fossil fuel. Another Times article in May linked water contamination to the proximity of shale gas drilling sites.

The issue has also captured the attention of policymakers and politicians. Some jurisdictions presiding over the Marcellus Shale, an underground rock formation that stretches across Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia, are considering bans on hydraulic fracturing, a natural gas drilling technique.

“There has been a lot of misreporting, and the [Oscar-nominated documentary] film Gasland hasn't helped,” Matusic said. “So we're going to town hall and community meetings, and just talking to people about the facts.”

They are also taking journalists to drilling sites, as well as engaging with bloggers, she said. And on the company website, Ken Cohen, VP of public and government affairs for Exxon Mobil, pens a blog called Perspectives, in which he discusses the issue, most recently weighing in on the Times coverage.

“He talks about these issues in a way that people can understand,” Matusic told PRWeek.

ExxonMobil is also part of an industry consortium, which has launched a website called Energy in Depth. The site includes a blog, video, and a “library” with press releases, fact sheets, and studies.

EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) has established a community relations teams in communities near its drilling sites, said Doug Hock, the company's director of public and community relations. The local outreach is being supported by PR agency Pure Brand Communications, out of Denver, through additional on-the-ground community relations staff and the preparation of collateral materials.

“Part of the issue [that has caused concern] is that in some regions, particularly around the Marcellus, they haven't seen drilling before,” Hock said. “So it is new to them, and it is also in more populace areas near large media centers like New York and Philadelphia.”

“As drilling becomes more urban, that creates challenges in terms of perception,” he added. “That is why we're focused on this at a grassroots level, and working with stakeholders and communities where we operate so they understand what we're doing, how it works, and the precaution and safety measures that are involved.”

William Brent, EVP of the clean technology practice for Weber Shandwick, said the industry is right to strike a collaborative, concerned tone in its communications. But he warned that in some of the industry's messaging (including on the Energy in Depth website), too much energy is spent pushing back against unfavorable media coverage.

“Rather than trying to debunk a New York Times article, there is actually an opportunity for the industry to engage in a meaningful conversation with various stakeholders,” Brent explained.

“They need to say, ‘We know there are concerns, and as a responsible industry we take these concerns seriously and are committed to working with federal and local state regulators to make sure we're developing an industry as responsibly as we can.'”

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