Addressing the Activists

By: Lucas Silva, CAGC

Article originally published in the Fall 2015 version of CAGC's quarterly magazine, The Source. Entire magazine and original article can be found here:  

The energy industry in Canada has been facing a heavy dose of environmental activism for years. Greenpeace, for example, originated in Vancouver in 1971. Greenpeace’s activism is well known amongst the public, and their distaste, along with many other environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGO’s), for resource industries is blatantly obvious. What else is obvious in this equation? The industry’s apparent lack of motivation to stop ignoring it.

Greenpeace started out with a much different approach than what they have now. Co-founder, Patrick Moore, explained that they started with a strong humanitarian perspective, saving civilization from nuclear war. They helped stop hydrogen bomb testing off the coast of Alaska, they sat in front of harpoons in order to fight Soviet whaling fleets, and they protected baby seals off the coast of Newfoundland.

As he explained in his book, Confession of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, and during his many talks around the world, he left Greenpeace because of a distinct shift in philosophy. They began ditching science in favour of sensationalism, misinformation, and fear. All environmental policy and/or reform should be based on science and nothing else. When that wasn’t the case anymore, Moore had to leave. 

The birth of the Internet, followed by social media many years later, have given Greenpeace and their fellow ENGO’s a huge boost, providing them and all their supporters with a platform to provide, at times, absurd criticisms of the industry. 

The energy industry as a whole and the supporters behind it have failed to use social media as effectively, missing out on an opportunity, and falling significantly behind the opposition in the process.

The Internet and social media has given ENGO’s enormous power over public discourse and has given them a stage to play a role in the halt of many energy related projects. It’s time to stop ignoring this, make a change, and begin engaging activists on a humanized level.

The seismic industry used to be the former whipping-boy for ENGO’s. They saw the big, wide lines intersecting across various areas of land and wanted the land disturbance to come to an end. Nowadays, in Canada, the activism is felt in many different areas: pipelines, oilsands, aboriginal rights, fracking, land disturbance; the list goes on and on.

Despite the fact that Canada’s oil sands and energy industry emits a fraction of the worldwide CO2 emissions, they are, along with every facet of the energy industry in Canada, targeted by ENGO activism on a scale that seems to be unmatched around the world. Alberta is seen as dirty, as a black mark on Canada, a wasteland. The oil sands are helping to destroy the planet. All of these fallacies are widespread news because of the ENGO’s activism and outreach ability. The industries complete lack to do anything about it isn’t helping.

This activism comes in all shapes and sizes. From daily Twitter or Facebook activity, to protests in the streets, to members of Greenpeace risking their lives as they suspend themselves from the St. John’s bridge in Portland, Oregon to prevent Shell’s MSV Fennica icebreaker from passing through. 

Regardless if the activism is a stunt that attracts nationwide media attention, or if it’s a single tweet from an ENGO supporter, the industry widely uses one strategy while addressing this: ignore it.

If they choose to go outside the strategy of ignoring, that usually coincides with a news release or a social media response carefully put together by a public relations team that is a stretch to be described as genuine, authentic engagement. 

This is a problem, and it needs to change or else the industry will continue to have troubles garnering support, and the activist organizations will continue to represent public interest, which is far from the reality.

By ignoring activism and acting like it’s not happening, the industry is compounding the problem. If the industry wants to have a “balanced conversation”, something that’s crucial for the energy sector to move forward, then the conversation has to take part with the opposition as well. The conversation will forever remain unbalanced if the industry continues to neglect this, and the public dialogue will forever contain the misinformation and sensationalism that many ENGO’s spurt on a daily basis.
Many environmental organizations have successfully rounded up significant support by engaging with the public, in person and online, and by meeting individuals on a personal and emotional level. This has made many of these organizations powerhouses in the public dialogue. The industry can counteract some of this by engaging them on a regular basis.

One of the main priorities that industry has stated, is to make the industry more humanized and personalized, giving it a more genuine, authenticated dynamic. This, in turn, will allow them to further engage with both supporters and opponents. By responding to activism, the industry can limit the amount of public popularity activist organizations receive, and redirect the intended result. 

Every move these ENGO’s make is carefully designed to make the industry look controversial, potentially negatively effecting the energy industry through the media and in the public dialogue. By responding in a responsible and timely manner, you can redirect that desired outcome. By ignoring, or hiding behind realms of executives, lawyers, consulting firms, and public relations representatives, the industry is moving farther and farther away from become the humanized and personalized industry they want.

Beyond Action Strategy did a case review on this subject, and used a video put together by an activist organization to illustrate these points. An activist group put together a protest in Kamloops, B.C. at a career forum for LNG opportunities. They used effective music and camera work to elicit an emotional response from viewers, and manufactured a controversial setting in the clip. 

The desired outcome was to have the forum and LNG in B.C. look controversial, and to gain media attention by disrupting the forum and spewing misinformation. They succeeded. They made LNG look bad, even though the signs they used and the things they yelled had zero scientific evidence behind them, the clip got picked up by CBC and was portrayed exactly the way the activists wanted it to. They successfully garnered major media attention that would look poorly on the industry.

This happened because the organizers of the event completely ignored what the activists were intending to do, and just shoved them out the door, failing to engage with them on any sort of level. This made the forum look bad, and the media focus was on the controversial forum, instead of the LNG opportunities and the learning that took place.

Beyond Action Strategy explains that by understanding what the activist organization is trying to do, by talking to them and finding out what their goals are, by politely inviting them to join, and by downplaying their use of non-factual material, they could have defused and redirected the situation and focus. 

They gave four steps to follow in a situation such as this: 

1) Maintain your demeanour 
2) Defuse and direct
3) Invite the activists (depending on the size of activist contingency) to constructively participate
4) Record the events yourself

By doing these things, the outcome of the protest could have been far different. The industry was made to look stubborn and unwilling to engage in the video, that doesn’t look good to the public. If they engaged the activists, and responded to them in a polite manner, the perception of the industry group leading the LNG forum would have been entirely different. They had a chance to defuse the situation and redirect the attention the activist group was aiming for.

Public perception of the industry is poor, it’s as simple as that. Even perception from within the energy industry is poor, I’d venture to say that’s why you don’t see very many employees employed by the energy sector standing up for it on a regular basis. That’s slowly beginning to change, and the industry is beginning to employ initiatives to reverse this concerning trend, but it’s still a long ways away. It’s situations like the one outlined, that if handled differently, can help that poor perception in the long-run.

The example by Beyond Action Strategy was a specific case, with specific variables involved; thus, every situation, in person or online, is going to be uniquely different. However, the way in which you handle each case can follow similar guidelines. 

At the CAGC, we’ve undertaken social media as a part of our communications and we’ve been using it on a regular basis for over a year now. Of course, it takes time to build up a portfolio and to acquire some substance behind the type of content you’re putting out, but we’ve been making process on how much influence we may have on our followers.

Throughout our time with social media, we have received periods of activity where activists and/or ENGO supporters have responded to us or targeted our various profiles. We’ve made it part of our mandate to respond as soon as we can in a fashion that stands up for industry when warranted, but also breeds a healthy conversation about energy. We believe this type of engagement is essential for the industry.

Throughout one particular conversation on Twitter, we didn’t agree on everything, clearly we had plenty of different views on various subjects, but we found common ground on some topics and had a real discussion with multiple different users. Engaging people like that, opponents or supporters, will improve the long-term perception of the industry. 

We believe those on the other side of the conversation walked away with a better perception of us as an industry association, and we even received comments from profiles that were uninvolved in the conversation that mentioned they were pleased to follow a healthy conversation.

This was only one case, but it affected a number of people in a positive way; thus, affecting the industry in a positive way. Of course, adopting a strategy like this could take a long time for the slow, stubborn, old-fashioned energy industry; much like it took far too along to adopt social media in the first place. But if positive change is ahead, the industry needs to adjust and make this change much quicker.

We as an association can only do so much, but every single incremental gain counts. The more industry does the same, the bigger the change. It’s time to start having a real conversation with individuals, to start personalizing the industry, and there’s no better way to do that than to engage those who may be on the opposition.


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