Although energy is taking a backseat to the economy as a political topic and the recent plunge in gas prices has reduced the public's attention to US dependence on foreign oil, biofuels is a hot media topic with a surprisingly wide breadth of opportunities.
Reporters from a variety of beats cover the space, says Alan Adler, manager of biofuels communications at General Motors.
“Not only do most outlets still have environmental writers, but energy writers are [also] somewhat interested and business... and government writers are interested,” he says. “You can even get the auto writer interested from time to time... so there's a wide crossover of media that might be assigned to this story.”
Communications pros often find a challenge in getting the press to keep up with the technology and move beyond the controversies of years past. An example is the initial push toward corn- and soy-based biofuels that triggered a debate over food versus fuel and land-use issues.
“[The] corn and soy [issue] was a bit of [a] disaster because reporters were focusing on the amount of effort it took to farm, harvest, and refine those crops, making it tough to justify in terms of the carbon footprint, as well causing a rise in the costs of some food,” explains John O'Brien, account supervisor at the Horn Group, whose clients include biodiesel producer Sirona Fuels.
He adds that many green technology reporters are veterans of their beat and are pushing coverage toward the business reality of new energy sources.
“Today, you've got to piggyback on trends... with reporters wanting to see a business model that can keep up with that,” O'Brien says.
Biofuels is also a young and growing industry, spawning a host of dedicated outlets, blogs, and Web sites, such as Green Car Congress, gas2.0, Kiplinger's Biofuels Market Alert, and Biofuels Digest.
Much of the mainstream press mainly focuses on public policy debates over ethanol and other first-generation fuels, says Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest. But he notes the emerging story that outlets are covering is new energy sources.
“We're now into the era of advanced fuels,” he says. “Our first generation stories tend to be about struggles, losses, and bankruptcy, but we're also focusing a lot more on new technology, such as turning algae into energy.”
Matt Rose, EVP and head of global corporate communications at MWW Group, agrees that the story is slowly shifting toward advanced technologies, adding there's not an emerging group of general interest reporters focusing on sustainable technology, crops, and business models. Rose's clients in the space include Codexis, a leading developer of biocatalytic chemical processes.
“I think President Obama and the energy policy his administration is pushing is going to keep this subject alive for a very long time,” he says.
Reporters are moving from stories that focus on the potential of new crops as sustainable sources to how biofuels can compete economically with oil as an energy source
Look to localize the biofuels story by targeting outlets close to where new facilities are opening up
Go beyond the green tech beat and pitch biofuels to business, agricultural, energy, and government reporters