October 2017, Vol. 244, No. 10


Creating Public Trust with Strategic Outreach

By Chris Deffenbaugh and Randy Davis, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, MO

The year 2017 has come with a slew of changes, including a new presidential administration that is committed to easing regulations on energy producers and distributors.

Despite the new administration’s support and expediency, there is no rubberstamp. Energy projects will continue to face regulatory and permitting hurdles; market trends and global production changes will continue to shape and drive the energy sector; technological advances in renewable energy production and storage will continue to become more economical; and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based opposition groups will continue to oppose projects they believe are unnecessary.

2016 was a year punctuated by protest groups and public dissent. There was an almost constant reminder in the news and on social media sites that activist coalitions were pushing back against oil and gas infrastructure projects.

To effectively reach new supporters, anti-hydrocarbon coalitions demonstrated a deft command of technology and a savvy, sometimes subversive, control of social media. Images and stories of maligned protesters and resistant community members were broadly retransmitted via social media, often to those with no immediate link to the proposed project site or insight into the energy sector.

The issuance of a presidential permit by the U.S. State Department for the Keystone XL pipeline and the executive action advancing the Dakota Access pipeline had an immediate effect on those projects, but it did not bridge the divide between midstream project sponsors and anti-hydrocarbon opposition groups.

Some environmental NGOs have said they will oppose all new oil and gas projects. It’s likely this blanket refutation will be adopted by a myriad of like-minded opposition groups, regardless of the associated project need or benefit put forth by its proponent. And, while a sweeping objection to new oil and gas projects might seem unjustifiable, given our collective reliance on fossil fuels, the anti-oil and gas message is resilient by design.

New Playbook 

To effectively position a pipeline program for success, an organization’s community engagement and public participation plans must anticipate resistance and create an effective pathway for the dissemination of fact-based information.

Pipeline organizations must be willing to engage the public, regulatory agencies and other stakeholders at every turn. The outreach playbook from which a project team operates must be thoroughly developed and embraced at all levels. To ensure a level playing field, the merits of each individual project must be proactively communicated to engage stakeholders in open, pragmatic discussions.

Coalitions that seek to disrupt pipeline projects have at their disposal a powerful tool – society’s psychological predisposition to anger. Research bears this out.  In 2010, a group of researchers sought to better understand why certain social media messages were more salient than others. They quantified over 70 million social media posts and created a program to categorize interactions among users into four emotional groups: sadness, disgust, anger and joy.

The study revealed that anger is more influential than all other emotions. In fact, angry social media messages spread more quickly and broadly than any other. For protesters, anger is the most effective way to cultivate support.

The tactical messaging deployed this past year by opposition groups appears to have eroded, at least in part, the public’s perception of the fossil-fuel industry. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in January showed that only 27% of the public favors the expansion of our nation’s oil and gas infrastructure. Overwhelmingly, the public wants to see an emphasis placed on the development of new renewable resources.

Antithetically, at our current production and capacity levels, we could obtain only 13% of our country’s energy needs from existing renewable resources. In this regard, a message that balances renewable energy growth along with fossil-fuel resources might prove more successful.

Effective messaging strategies should take into account that a large portion of the public takes a passive role in accumulating information. This means that occasionally the loudest voice is the only one heard. This lack of a balanced base of knowledge can provide opposition groups with wide latitude as they create their messaging.

The validity of information shared online becomes even more important when considering a recent Pew poll that found 81% of U.S. adults get some portion of their news online. Another Pew study found that, as of 2016, 79% of Americans use Facebook. Considered in tandem, these findings indicate how crucial it is to maintain an environment in which fact-based discussions can occur.

Social Media Opportunities

The general public’s growing preference for obtaining news from internet media sites and social media forums not only allows for opinion-confirming filters, but also enables the dissemination of content at a speed that the traditional media and word-of-mouth conversations can’t match.

Project details and false information can “go viral” and reach potentially affected stakeholders almost instantly. Once these messages are broadly transmitted, it is virtually impossible to undo the harm they may have caused. The breakneck speed at which the internet can move information shines a light on the importance of conducting open, fact-based discussions much earlier in the project-development cycle. It falls to the oil and gas industry to anticipate and counter slanted information with well-developed, unbiased information.

Despite the potential for inaccurate viral messaging, the perception and opposition challenges facing pipeline project sponsors also present opportunities for our industry. Understanding the changing environment of news selection and consumption provides a blueprint for more effective project-messaging efforts.

And, understanding the tactical approaches that opposition groups may use provides insight to anticipate and mitigate the spread of false information. Well before project opponents mobilize their resources, we can create strategic engagement plans and establish an online and community-based presence allowing us to build dedicated communication pathways to educate concerned stakeholders and advise them of attempts by opposition groups to unduly influence public sentiment.

Proposing organizations can elevate their message by identifying community leaders who understand that our growing energy needs require thoughtful solutions. Allowing an outside entity or individual to speak to the benefits of your project can diminish the public’s skepticism and shine light on the value inherent in your investment.

Importance of Engagement 

It is important to note there is no single pathway to successful public involvement. Each new project, community, and stakeholder group contains a unique set of challenges. An effective public involvement playbook may contain major themes that ring true across disparate circumstances, but the differentiators are research, positive outreach, and timing.

To secure the support needed from community leaders, stymie the outpouring of online criticism and create an environment in which project representatives can work effectively with potentially affected stakeholders, a project-sponsoring organization must work to stay ahead of the curve.

While some opposition groups may choose to avoid fact-based discussions in order to direct the narrative, a proactive approach to disseminating project facts and highlighting community investments will only improve public perception of the vital oil and gas products distributed by pipelines.

There will always be anxiety on the part of potentially affected stakeholders, but marginalizing or ignoring their concerns only heightens the frustrations of everyone involved. To improve their standing in the court of public opinion, pipeline companies must expand their public engagement and routing efforts, both before and after a project is announced.

An angry public can be quick to judge, but by giving them a consistent and dedicated avenue to voice their concerns, organizations can engage in conversations rather than PR battles. This isn’t to suggest that improved outreach and analysis will inspire landowners to volunteer their lands for crossing, but given the right approach, working solutions can be found.

While the breadth and scale of stakeholder campaigns must expand, the end goal will remain the same; facilitating open discussions between project sponsors and affected and concerned stakeholders is a necessary conduit to issue resolution and project approval.

Project proponents must address stakeholder concerns with conviction and clarity if they hope to alleviate controversy. The public is quick to grow concerned, but if its apprehensions are addressed in a transparent and proactive manner, those attempting to block or stop a project will be left with a devalued social currency. P&GJ

Authors: Randy Davis is the Oil and Gas Practice lead for Burns & McDonnell, serving as client coordinator and senior technical advisor for environmental programmatic reviews and permitting for utility and energy clients. He has over 15 years of industry experience specializing in environmental permitting, compliance and remediation.

Chris Deffenbaugh is a senior public involvement specialist at Burns & McDonnell, specializing in public involvement programs for midstream infrastructure enhancement and electrical transmission and substation design projects. He has over 10 years of communication and public relations experience in the public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors. 

Related Articles


{{ error }}
{{ comment.comment.Name }} • {{ comment.timeAgo }}
{{ comment.comment.Text }}