Open, honest discussion is needed for citizens to make up their mind on these issues, and for community leaders to know how best to protect their citizens while also considering their economies. Many citizens demand an outright ban on drilling, until we have better understanding about the potential for hydrofracturing to cause harm to our water supplies and air quality, stronger regulations to protect our communities should drilling proceed, and stronger safeguards in place to prevent accidents like yesterday’s explosion and fire in Avella, PA. Some would favor Marcellus and other shale gas development, as natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but many safety questions remain. It often seems like the industry isn’t understanding what concerned citizens are saying. Maybe they understand perfectly, but act like they don’t. One PR firm’s President is recommending industry do just that.
Greg Matusky, founder of Gregory FCA, a PR firm based in Ardmore, PA, recently posted “Are we winning or losing the public relations battle on Marcellus Shale?” Mr. Matusky looks at recent online data to suggest that public opinion on Marcellus drilling is becoming less positive overall and has fallen dramatically in the last year. So what does Mr. Matusky recommend to turn around public opinion?
“Never respond to the supposed negatives” is #2 on his list. “Too often, the industry only amplifies the criticism of the lunatic fringe by addressing falsehoods.” This advice is dead wrong, and is the key failing of the drilling industry’s communications strategy. Homeowners have had water supplies contaminated, so that they now get water delivered to them, trucked in by drillers. Some have had livestock die from drinking contaminated water. When asked to respond, industry puts on a stone face and merely repeats the same sentence, with little variation: “In the 60 years of hydrofracturing, (your state here) has never found one instance where hydrofracturing has contaminated water supplies.” Homeowners gasp and almost faint at hearing this, since they know their water is ruined. Where does the truth lie?
Oil and gas drilling has and will continue to contaminate water supplies. It happens almost always due to failures of cement well casings, surface contamination, or improper wastewater disposal, not from the actual fracking practice itself. Instead of admitting this, and explaining to citizens what went wrong and what they’re doing to make it right, the industry listens to Mr. Matusky’s advice and only further infuriates those who have been harmed.
Not all of what Mr. Matusky says is bad advice. He should listen more to his own first point, “Beat them on the facts[.]” You can respond to the “supposed negatives” if you have facts on your side. You will win over level-headed, open-minded citizens if you have the truth in your corner. He’s right that if done correctly, this industry can bring large benefits to many citizens and states that lie in the shale play. But it can also bring fireballs, dirty air, fouled water, ripped-apart roads, and environmental damage that will take decades to heal. The public doesn’t need pretty billboards or slick commercials to make everything look and sound nice—we need an open, honest dialogue about the risks and benefits of this industry.
Dismissing legitimate environmental concerns by characterizing them as misinformed statements from the “lunatic fringe” won’t win this industry any friends. In fact, as drilling activity increases in the Marcellus, the negative impacts on our communities, our air, and our water become increasingly difficult to ignore, and this industry’s denial of these very real problems becomes increasingly ridiculous. This is probably the real reason for any increase in negative public opinion. Far from winning over the public, Mr. Matusky’s strategy of denying the problems, ignoring the criticism, and insulting the critics will only serve to increase public skepticism and reduce this industry’s credibility.
If you wonder why some people just won’t listen to your concerns, it might be because they’re listening to Mr. Matusky instead.