Monday, January 7, 2013

Promised Land: A Film About Milk and Honey or Oil and Gas?

Rachel Carson wrote a book that changed the way many of us think about the environment. Industry criticized her Silent Spring for being full of exaggerations and half truths. That criticism itself was filled with exaggerations and half truths as well. Facts, as they so often do, camp out someplace in the middle. But I don't think anyone can deny that the book inspired dialogue and brought needed improvements to how we treat air, land, and water.

It's a movie this time sparking environmental discussion and debate. Promised Land, written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is a fictional account of a town struggling with whether to allow natural gas drilling, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The industry claims this method opens up gas wells and ensures a long-term clean and inexpensive energy source. It also points out that states, towns, and individuals stand to profit financially. Environmentalists say fracking can pollute water and air and is unsafe.

The movie takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, where in real life Marcellus shale is being tapped to release its riches a couple miles or so underground . I have yet to see Promised Land, but most critics seem unimpressed.

NPR explained the gist of the film. "In the real world, there are significant environmental concerns surrounding gas drilling and fracking. In the movie, these criticisms emerge at a town hall meeting. A high school science teacher, played by Hal Holbrook, interrupts a local politician who's a less-than-honest cheerleader for the gas industry. The teacher encourages residents to Google the word "fracking" to research the process and its effects.

"Later, a man who bills himself as an environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, comes to town. He stokes the opposition and delivers a simplistic and misleading demonstration of fracking and drilling to a class of grade-school kids."  (

I've been critical of the way the industry has made its case to a doubting public. On July 23 I wrote, “'The debate is becoming very emotional. And basically not using science' on either side, said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor studying groundwater contamination who has been praised and criticized by both sides....
“'You can literally put facts in front of people, and they will just ignore them,' said Mark Lubell, the director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis. (
They ignore facts but remember misconceptions that support their already-formed opinions. That's what the Marcellus Shale Coalition is concerned about. Therefore, it has bought 15 seconds in 75% of all Pennsylvania theaters showing the movie, hoping to deliver its safety message to the public. Although communities normally don't vote on fracking, as they do in Promised Land, citizens can put pressure on local, state, and national lawmakers to ban fracking or pass tight, costly regulations. This is a good website, but it takes more than social media to address a controversy this big. Drillers so far have seemed reticent to say much, except to politicians.
Here are some things the Marcellus coalition should be doing to gain the public's trust. Heck, all gas drilling companies, and probably your organization whatever it does, should look into the same kinds of strategies.
Be proactive, not reactive. When a crisis or controversy is looming, get out there with your key messages, delivered in a variety of ways. In baseball, you can't score any runs when your team is on defense. Score early and score often.
Anticipate. Assess what messages your critics might deliver and develop your own messages that will make criticism less effective.
Know your friends and enemies. Even without information, your friends will be supportive and your enemies will attack with or without facts. Instead of focusing on friends and enemies, seek ways to win over the ambivalents, which in most cases constitute the majority. Make them your friends or at least keep them ambivalent.
Be a real boy, Pinocchio, not a wooden puppet. People relate to real people. Roll up your sleeves and eat at the locals' breakfast hot spot, join organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary, serve on community boards and committees tackling issues unrelated to fracking, develop a speakers bureau, and provide donations to local charities to make you an almost indispensable part of neighbors' lives. Put away the fancy presentations and be a human being.
Seeing is believing. Let townspeople visit a working drill site. Set up discussions for people with those in another community where fracking has been unintrusive.
Form a community advisory committee. Recruit key people to meet with industry leadership regularly so the business can share plans and progress and community members can relay their concerns. I've had considerable success with such committees.
Share the bad with the good. This shouldn't be "public relations" in the dirty sense that most people perceive PR. People will know if you're selling them a used car without a test drive. If the gas pedal sticks, don't be afraid to tell them it sticks. But also tell them what you're doing about the problem to eliminate or minimize it. Inviting people to kick the tires improves your credibility.
Care. When I was in the chemical business, I got to know plant neighbors personally. I didn't let questions stay unanswered. I took an interest in people: Is your wife feeling better? Congratulate little Johnny on his report card for me. How 'bout those Mets? Do you need help cutting the dead tree down in your front yard? Find out their birthdays and send them cards. People will listen to you if they know you care about them. If my chemical plant had a release and I said there was no impact on the community, people believed me because I had showed I cared about them.
I don't want to advertise or criticize Promised Land. But if you see it, please leave a comment on my blog. What did you think? Did the pro or con side make the stronger case? How well did the company in the movie communicate? What should it have done differently? It would be helpful to many of this blog's readers if you would share your reactions.

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