Once celebrated as an oil and gas “game changer”, hydraulic fracturing has quickly become one of the industry’s most controversial and misunderstood practices. Environmental concerns (including suspected groundwater contamination and seismic activity) have prompted environmental NGOs to declare war against the industry. In turn, governments around the world are examining the safety of hydraulic fracturing and, in some cases, considering tougher regulations or banning the process completely.
A recent report published by the University of Austin at Texas, titled Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development, identified an alarming trend. The report, which examined news coverage and public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing, revealed that a significant percentage of newspaper stories written on the subject had a negative tone (65 per cent). And the content analysis, which included 999 mainstream articles, discovered that the most commonly reported themes included ground water or water well contamination, well blow-outs, air contamination, pipeline emissions, water disposal and benzene contamination (a carcinogenic substance found in some hydraulic fracturing fluids).
If the old communications adage “perception is reality” stands true, this report indicates bad news for business. Recent events in both Canada and the United States have proven that social media and traditional media narratives have the unprecedented ability to impact your organization’s social and legal license to operate. As a result, it is increasingly important that organizations are tracking and responding to issues that are identified in the public sphere.
Any organization that counts on hydraulic fracturing (or any other controversial operating practice) as a contributor to its bottom line needs clear, relevant and ‘actionable’ insight into the key issues and associated stakeholder sentiments. It is no longer sufficient that companies solely meet the demands of their regulators, but rather they must consider the demands of greater society. As we see more and more project proposals stalled as a result of public pressure and ground roots activism, comprehensive and insightful social and traditional media intelligence has become an essential component of an effective communications strategy.
Social and traditional media monitoring efforts should include more than simple computer-generated media clipping and targeted internal distribution. Our monitoring efforts must be used in a way that protects the reputation of the company and steers the strategic communications efforts of the organization; addressing the concerns, misperceptions, fears and angers of all stakeholders.
A tailored media monitoring program may take many forms, but the following information outlines three basic areas that must be covered in any strategic media intelligence program.
1. Find Key Influencers
Traditional and social media monitoring provides powerful intelligence about the individuals or organizations that will drive an issue. The internet provides unprecedented intelligence about the people who are passionate (on both sides of the fence) about a topic. Whether it be a special interest blog, a non-profit or NGO, an advocacy group, a politician, a professor or a soccer mom-turned-activist, it’s important to know who is talking about your organization and your projects. In most cases, key influencers will emerge in the social sphere long before they start to drive mainstream narratives.
2. Identify Emerging Narratives
It is important to understand what is being said about your organization and its operational practices. In particular, you should be watching for unique information (narratives that aren’t currently mainstream), rumours or speculation, misperceptions or misinformation, and trending narratives. Often, issues that are identified early in the social sphere will, within time, emerge in mainstream narratives. Understanding what public and key influencers are saying early on will help your organization formulate a more comprehensive and effective communications strategy that addresses the issues identified online.
3. Assess Effectiveness of Key Messages
People on the internet are often brutally honest, particularly when they are passionate about an issue. Effective media intelligence should provide insight into how people and organizations are accepting or rejecting your key messages. In some cases, detractors will use your key messages as a target in an effort to erode your organization’s credibility. In other cases, proponents may propagate your message and become third party champions. Either way, it is important to know how well your messages are being received, and how they may need to be revised. It’s also about crafting new, more effective key messages based on the intelligence that online conversations provide. If they show anger, frustration, disbelief, appreciation, relief or any other emotion, regard these as clues about the tone, approach and content of your messages.
Identifying key influencers, what people are saying and how well messages are being received will provide communicators the opportunity to nip damaging misperceptions in the bud before they grow out of control.
A simple twitter search using the keyword “fracking” will provide some interesting insight into the level of concern and passion expressed on both sides of the debate. A little further digging and more time invested will reveal the key stakeholders actively working for and against the industry. In a world of instantaneous data, we, as communicators, must tap this reservoir of information. Our corporate reputations depend on it.