Gulf spill fails to spur comms changes from related sectors

Within four months, the BP oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico became the world's largest offshore spill and raised issues from jobs to the reduction of greenhouse gases within the political debate.

Within four months, the BP oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico became the world's largest offshore spill and raised issues from jobs to the reduction of greenhouse gases within the political debate.

Yet public affairs pros in the energy and environmental sector say the spill still hasn't triggered a change in how most organizations communicate or in how policymakers and constituents view domestic energy issues.

Bud Albright, SVP of policy and government affairs for utility firm CenterPoint Energy, which recently opened an office in Washington, says the BP spill has pushed the company to re-examine procedures and operations, but not its overall policy strategy.

"It has highlighted the worst of the industry at a time when we're trying to move to new energy sources," he explains. "But I don't envision changes directly because of the spill."

CenterPoint continues to communicate its views on cap-and-trade legislation, which it does not support, and on dividends.

"When something like this happens, you focus more on safety and you re-examine what you're doing," adds Albright.

The contrast in views

The policy position and communications strategy held by CenterPoint is in sharp contrast to the Clean Energy Works coalition - a proponent of clean energy and climate legislation made up of environmental groups and faith-based organizations - which sought to incorporate oil spill-related events and messaging into its overall communications.

Jason Miner, MD of public affairs at Glover Park Group, which provided communications support for Clean Energy, says, "If you look at the advertising and public communications coming from the big advocates for clean energy and climate change post-spill, they all focus on the spill."

In June, the coalition organized a fly-in, shuttling nearly 100 residents from Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama into Washington. The residents each spoke with policymakers and media on Capitol Hill about how the spill had affected them.

The organization also used takeover ads for online media outlets, which were tied to editorial content written about the spill.

"It had a material impact on the debate in the Senate," says Miner. "There has been a very clear change, at least for the proponents of climate change solutions and clean energy. They saw it as an opportunity to talk about the cost of fossil fuel use."

Despite efforts from proponents of climate change legislation and the passage of the House of Representatives' energy bill in late July, the Senate vote on the clean energy and oil bill was delayed until mid-September.

Missed opportunities

Some communicators say the oil crisis has been a missed opportunity, considering the number of organizations with a stake in issues from natural gas to renewable energy. The spill could be tied to job creation, the deficit, or the dependency on foreign oil. But several communicators noted a lack of education and outreach to both policymakers and their constituents about these issues.

Many prominent energy companies, such as Shell, continue their reliance on advertising as their primary communications vehicle in Washington.

"There's been a steady drip of paid media, but not the stories that need to be told about the true benefits in real America," says Joe Farren, VP and practice leader of North America public affairs at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. "I'm not saying it's not effective, but it needs to be augmented."

Farren says the spill provided opportunities to tell how people outside of Washington are affected by issues relating to energy - especially during the August recess.

"Are they telling stories in real America as Washington empties out into real America?" says Farren. "There's opportunity there."

The legislative agenda

Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act (Senate bill)

Eliminates the $75 million liability cap on damages oil companies are required to pay for spills and other disasters.

Calls for $3.8 billion in rebates for cars and trucks powered by natural gas and $5 billion in rebates for home- owners who upgrade to more efficient appliances

Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources Act of 2010 (House bill)

Also removes the $75 million liability cap on oil companies.

Calls for creation of three agencies to manage federal regulation of oil and natural gas operations

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