Coal Lobby Message Missing the Mark

One of our children’s’ favorite movies a decade ago was Galaxy Quest, a spoof of  Star Trek. In it, Tim Allen, cast as a Captain Kirk wannabe, leads the crew of the NSEA Protector only at appearances at supermarket grand openings and sci-fi conventions because their TV show was cancelled many years earlier. At one of these events, aliens recruit the crew for a “real” intergalactic battle with rock monsters and belligerent insect creatures.

The one redeeming value of this movie, other than Alien star Sigourney Weaver obviously enjoying a good spoof, was the recurring punch line: “Never give up. Never surrender.” Perhaps the coal-fired power industry, failing to get much respect from Washington these days, and stunned from too many cancelled projects, should adopt this motto. The industry’s basic message (we need coal) is sound, but it must be delivered more intelligently and persuasively. It is my opinion that one of the reasons the message is being successfully shouted down is because some of the people carrying the message are not up to the challenge.

Clear Coal Message Needed

As the editor of POWER and COAL POWER, attending industry press briefings is part of the job. These briefings are usually aimed at educating editors about recent technology advances, new projects booked, or sporadic legislative victories. Occasionally, they actually provide useful technical information.

At the recent ELECTRIC POWER Conference, I attended a briefing hosted by a well-known industry coal-fired generation support organization, whose name I won’t reveal, for reasons that will soon become apparent. This particular briefing, scheduled with power industry editors representing several different magazines, began poorly and quickly devolved into a total waste of time. The message was muddled and lacked fact-based reasoning. In short, the briefing was an embarrassment. Worse yet, the speakers weren’t self-aware enough to know they were doing a poor job.

Dr. Allan Zimmerman, a well-known organizational behavior speaker, has written about the results that can flow from a finely honed, carefully and clearly presented point of view. He uses math to make his point: Begin by convincing one person of your point of view within six months. Then, the two of you can convince two more in another six months, and so on. This multiplicative behavior will convert the entire world to your point of view within 18 years. Zimmerman also writes that there are three basic requirements for all effective communication.

1. Effective communication begins when someone thinks clearly. Zimmerman points out that a reasonably good knowledge of the subject matter is a basic requirement for framing a convincing argument on any subject.

The goal of this coal group is to persuasively present the advantages of coal-fired power generation to the public, so it follows that more-than-superficial understanding of coal-related technology and the role that coal plays in our economy would be a prerequisite for its briefers. They proved not to possess that knowledge at the briefing I attended.

This press conference began with a succinct statement of their view: “We believe coal is the best choice for power generation in the U.S.” So far so good, I thought. Being the aspiring journalist that I am, I immediately asked an equally succinct question: “Why?” I was expecting the standard list of reasons—national security, indigenous fuel source, low cost, and so on. I listened closely to their spiel, eagerly expecting to learn something profound that I had somehow overlooked during my years in the industry. Without going into the details of their reply, they looked at me as if I were a learning-impaired child and essentially said, “Because.”

My choices at that point were few. I could (1) lecture them about how poor the briefing was going, (2) sit and smile until the briefing was over and leave, or (3) ask a question and watch them squirm. I took the easy way out. I tested them by asking about their organization’s reaction to new Federal Energy Regulatory Chairman Jon Wellinghoff’s recent comment that baseload power plants may become an “anachronism” and that the country may no longer need any new coal-fired power plants. Neither spokesperson had any idea what I was talking about.

2. Effective communication gains momentum when someone feels deeply. The best salespeople really believe in the product they sell. I recently purchased an iPhone, and the salesman, probably 13 years old, went out of his way to show me many of the phone’s cool features and the numerous applications available for download. This kid could have wrapped up the phone and sent me home to unscramble the manual solo, but he honestly, and quite rightly, believes this is the best cell phone on the market. I was a true believer before I left the store. I’m sure he “converts” a dozen customers a day—not just one every six months.

I should have quietly excused myself from the press briefing after the non-answer to my second question, but I was feeling sorry for my colleagues who were equally in awe of the banalities leaving the lips of these industry reps. The presentation was so superficial and emotionless that I thought I was buying nuts and bolts at Home Depot. Any high school debate team member would have poked holes in their presentation without breaking a sweat. I came to the briefing ready to be pumped up. I left deflated.

One briefer, obviously seeing the glazed look in my eyes, tried to make some connection with his audience. He paused briefly in the middle of his dronings and asked me, “What do you do in the power industry?” Now, I don’t expect everyone in the power industry to win a round of “Where’s Waldo” by picking this editor out of a crowd, but I’m not out of line to expect these reps to take 30 seconds out of their busy day to figure out who they invited to the press conference and what magazines they represent. I can honestly say they were probably the only two people at ELECTRIC POWER who had never heard of either POWER or COAL POWER.

3. Effective communication gets results when someone acts consistently. Any organization that voluntarily assumes an industry leadership position and presumes to speak for an industry must carefully look at not only the message but the messenger. Zimmerman points to a quote from Booker T. Washington, a former slave and prominent educator, to drive home that point: “The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what the man or woman is able to do that counts.” The coal industry speakers I heard failed to demonstrate that they had sound reasons for advocating the use of coal.

Actions have to match the rhetoric, and both need to be suited to the situation. The lackadaisical way the coal lobby’s message was presented will surely be rejected by a skeptical public if its spokespersons can’t even persuade those within the power industry, who appreciate the value of coal.

The American people (to say nothing of power industry insiders) are too smart to take “Because I say so” as a reason to believe that coal should be part of the nation’s future. We no longer live in a world in which any industry can fully control its own message. This means that all industries, especially those that find themselves unpopular, need to stick to the facts, maximize their positive messages, and treat their opponents and the public at large as intelligent partners in a dialogue.

Smarter Coal Communication Needed

The crew of the NSEA Protector eventually banded together to defeat the insect creatures and restore order to the universe. Better yet, their TV show was renewed for another season. Happy ending.

Today, the coal industry is coming across as a parody of itself. No spoofing by others is needed. So, until the coal industry in all its forms invests in presenting a clear, coherent, and consistent message about how important coal is to our nation’s future economic growth, the industry’s motto might as well be: “We give up. We Surrender.”

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE

SHARE this article