Energy companies go local, opponents use social in fracking battle

PR executives say the energy industry needs to increase its community relations efforts given that fracking operations are pushing into more populated areas.

Oil and gas companies have successfully lobbied in Washington, DC for friendly regulations for hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations. Yet agency and in-house PR executives tell PRWeek the industry needs to increase its community relations efforts given that fracking operations are pushing into more populated areas.

“Issues don't start in Washington or state capitals but on the ground in local communities with a specific land- or homeowner,” says Larry Holdren, partner at Pure Brand Communications, a Denver-based agency with several oil and gas clients. “It is really important for companies to work hard to develop and maintain relationships with individuals who are being affected in these very specific communities.”

Those communities are no longer only in the rural Midwest, Holdren points out, but more densely populated areas on the East and West coasts where worries about potential water contamination and pollution from wells are common. The Marcellus Shale formation, for example, stretches from southern New York to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Fracking opponents recently greeted President Barack Obama as he visited several cities in New York State where the drilling practice is temporarily banned until the state's Department of Environmental Conservation completes a health and environmental assessment of it.

Colorado, once considered an energy friendly state, has also become a key battleground between energy companies and anti-fracking groups. Two towns in the state have already banned the practice, and others are reportedly considering similar measures.

Holdren says “the industry too often loves to tell the story of job creation and positive economic growth. But the questions people have in those areas are ones such as, ‘Is the drilling safe? How is it safe? And how will you make sure my family and I have safe drinking water?'”

“And they can't address that with a mass communications response,” he adds.

Encana has hydraulic drilling operations in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and Louisiana, with exploration projects in New Mexico, Michigan, and Mississippi.

Doug Hock, director of community and PR for Encana Oil & Gas in the US, says the biggest communications challenge occurs when operations move into areas “where there hasn't been oil and gas development previously.”

“We utilize a strategy of outrage management,” he explains. “Before you can effectively communicate how you mitigate impacts and ensure the safety of the process, you first have to deal with the outrage people feel regarding what amounts to an industrial activity taking place in their area.”

He says Encana focuses on personalized PR tactics, such as community meetings, one on ones, tours of the operations, and public notices for input.

“Until you've built a sense of trust, the messaging should focus on what is done to reduce the [environmental] impacts of oil and gas production,” Hock adds.

Encana works with Pure Brand Communications on developing its outreach strategy.

Devon Energy is the largest producer in the Barnett Shale region in North Texas, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The company has subsequently developed US shale basins in the Haynesville (North Louisiana, East Texas, and Southern Arkansas), Marcellus, Fayetteville (Arkansas), and the Woodford (Oklahoma) ranges.

Tim Hartley, senior communications specialist at Devon, says the company focuses on community affairs in a coordinated strategy with government affairs, corporate communications, and investor relations “to convey a consistent, coherent, and credible message.”

“Our strategy is pretty simple: tell our story. It's one of innovation and improvement and performance, sensitive to our neighbors and the environment,” he says. “We know our industry, if not so much our company, faces organized opposition. It is in the straightforward telling of our story that we counter misinformation.”

Devon has on-the-ground community affairs representatives and operational leaders in local communities, who go through a media training program. The company also sponsors local events and programs and operates a corporate giving program in those communities.

However, Hartley says the company is careful about the kind of events it participates in.

“Town hall meetings are not a preferred channel due to the downside risk of giving agenda-driven people a microphone, but we do participate from time to time in town halls sponsored by others,” he explains. “We make it a point of emphasis to be receptive and responsive to feedback from our neighbors. Last week, for example, we participated in a town hall put on by one of our statewide regulatory commissioners in Oklahoma.”

Devon wants to do more citizen outreach, particularly on social media.

“We do monitor what's being said about us and our industry, but we don't yet proactively participate in the real-time discussion. We intend to get more involved, but we will do so very carefully and with specific objectives and plans,” says Hartley, noting the company has been slow to embrace social media partly because it is not a consumer-facing brand.

The company works with local PR agencies to monitor media and public opinion and support its community outreach efforts, he adds.

Anti-fracking groups rally supporters with social media
In New York, a coalition of more than 230 organizations called New Yorkers against Fracking organizes rallies through the Web, specifically via its website and social media channels such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter.

“We have worked to increase awareness and education of the issues with fracking, how disastrous fracking has been in Pennsylvania, and the science showing that fracking cannot be done safely," says John Armstrong, communications director for nonprofit Frack Action, one of the founding organizations of New Yorkers Against Fracking.

In addition to social media, he says outreach strategies include going door to door, informal meetings, community forums, town hearings, local fliers, and media pitching.

“Many constituency groups have made specific outreach efforts on their own, such as farmers to farmers, business owners to business owners, and medical experts to medical experts, which has proven very effective,” he adds.

Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit created in 2005, also relies on social media in drumming up opposition to fracking, including recently to organize rallies in Colorado.

“We do traditional press outreach, especially to comment on policy developments or to make them aware of newsworthy events,” says Food & Water Watch communications director Darcey Rakestraw. “But we are also prioritizing social media where people are already engaging and sharing information.”

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