Courtesy and © Focus Features
Dodged a bullet. Whistled past the graveyard. Rolled the dice. Whatever metaphor you prefer, it looks like utility communicators will not get “fracked” by the fast-disappearing Matt Damon film, Promised Land. And that’s good, because it doesn’t appear that utility communicators invested a lot of time or effort preparing for the potential negative PR impact of that movie.
Promised Land opened on nearly 1,700 theaters across the U.S. in early January, and one month later it had all but vanished. During that time, it took in less than $10 million at the box office—less than it cost to make the movie. Whatever the reasons for its commercial failure, it seems safe to say Promised Land will not do to the energy industry what The China Syndrome did to the nuclear industry. That is, providing there’s no oil and gas equivalent of Three Mile Island, which melted down 12 days before The China Syndrome was released in 1979.
For energy companies—oil and gas producers no less than electric or gas utilities— “fracking” is the new “f-bomb.” U.S. oil and gas production has soared in recent years, in large part because of a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, now widely known as “fracking.” As oil and gas production has soared, so too have concerns and protests by the public about hydraulic fracturing. Go to any public hearing on hydraulic fracturing today and you see fear, distrust, anger, and a lot of pithy, colorful statements of opposition, some of which are shown here.
Communicators can’t underestimate the potential power of a clever name or a memorable phrase. Recall the nickname “Scud stud” given to a handsome (but now largely forgotten) television reporter during the first Persian Gulf War. Or how the term “Smart Meters” became toxic. It’s no different with fracking: Today, that term is poison. Energy companies—including utilities—need to find a new term to describe hydraulic fracturing.
Oil and gas companies, not utilities, have the most at stake in the current PR battle over hydraulic fracturing. But energy utilities clearly have a dog in this hunt as well. In the U.S. today, most of the gas is produced using hydraulic fracturing.
And that gas quickly works its way downstream to electric and gas utilities. Most new power plants burn gas. A good bit of that gas is delivered to homes by local gas distribution companies. If protestors succeed at slowing or stopping the use of hydraulic fracturing, or if regulators determine hydraulic fracturing threatens public health and has safety risks, electric and gas utilities will be one of the first industries affected. Nothing gets a utility customer’s attention like price increases—which is exactly what the electric and gas utilities face if there’s a hiccup in hydraulic fracturing or natural gas production.
So I called spokespersons at several utilities to learn what they were doing to prepare for, and possibly counter, any public backlash against hydraulic fracturing triggered by Promised Land. I was surprised at the lack of preparation among the utilities I contacted. I can’t claim I conducted anything close to a comprehensive survey. But I did select several utilities specifically because they operated near large shale formations like the Marcellus and Utica. And I heard more than a few utility spokespeople say, “Nope, we’re not really doing anything.”
One utility that stood out for its strategic preparation is Northwest Natural, headquartered in Portland, Oregon. In addition to participating in discussions and webinars about the film with the American Gas Association, NW Natural also put new content about hydraulic fracturing on its website, including two brief videos. The utility’s communicators also prepared talking points for use by its Customer Call Center representatives in case they received inquiries, as well as talking points for the news media.
NW Natural spokeswoman Melissa Moore reports that the utility has received a small number of calls from the media or customers on the movie or the hydraulic fracturing issue. The communications team wanted to provide thorough and transparent information on this topic to educate customers on an important issue concerning its product.
“We have a very vocal environmental presence in Oregon and southwest Washington,” Moore said in an email interview. “Our market research confirmed we have a sophisticated audience in our service area that is interested in and aware of the topic.” She added that the lack of inquiries could be because Oregon is not a natural gas–producing state. But Moore recognizes the concern about hydraulic fracturing, even among Oregonians, will not be going away.
Courtney Loper, a field director for Energy In Depth, the research and education arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was part of a team that spent a lot of time preparing for Promised Land. She offered a few insights into the movie, its quick disappearance from public view, and the value of preparation.
“The general public just doesn’t find hydraulic fracturing as controversial or sensational as Matt Damon and activists had hoped,” she said in an email interview. “When you combine that with the movie’s bad reviews, it’s not surprising that people aren’t going to see the movie, and that it didn’t get an Academy award nomination.”
Loper’s last point was a calculated jab. More than two years ago, a film titled Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, something that shocked and angered the oil and gas industry. That movie purported to be a fact-based exploration of hydraulic fracturing, something Loper and others in the industry strongly deny. After Gasland was released, Loper said Energy In Depth conducted detailed fact-checking to defuse the film’s emotional and visual impact. It also produced a counter-documentary, Truthland, and conducted extensive outreach to the news media.
But that approach wouldn’t work for Promised Land because that film never claimed to be anything but a work of fiction. So Energy In Depth created a microsite, The Real Promised Land, to help tell its side of the story. “We wanted the website to be a place where folks could hear true stories about oil and gas production,” Loper said. “We have video clips of farmers, land owners, business owners and elected officials, and we’ve gotten a great response to the site.”
“Movies can shape public perceptions,” Loper said, “but they can also prompt members of the public to find out the facts for themselves. We wanted to make sure those facts were easy to find for anyone who saw Promised Land or read about the movie in the press. It’s important to be proactive. That way, people won’t confuse Matt Damon’s fiction, or the baseless claims from anti-development activists that inspired the film, with fact.”
In The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of preparation when he wrote, “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” More recently, an executive at Southwest Gas Corporation told an industry conference, “Perception is reality and facts are negotiable.”
That’s something to think about the next time your utility is tempted to roll the dice. Because if the dice come up snake eyes, you crap out—and your company’s losses could be significant.
—John Egan is the founder and president of Egan Energy Communications.