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The Public Relations Challenge of Energy Projects

Winning over broad support for mega-projects means strategic planning.

More than a few large energy projects have run into serious delays or wound up permanently shelved due to public opposition groups. This outcome has become more and more common over the past few years.

For the dedicated individual who gathers together a coalition on social media, organizes fellow objectors, holds rallies and protests, and floods neighbor’s newsfeeds with biased content, this is the objective – obstructing progress regardless of the need for the project.

The argument could be made that someone unfamiliar with a contested power project would eventually tune out the constant doom and gloom messaging, but in fact, the opposite often occurs. Due to a media effect known as priming, the more often people encounter a message or idea, the more likely they are not only to recall the information, but also to allow it to influence their behavior and judgments.

Additionally, the more often people come in contact with a message, the more persistent the influence on their thoughts and actions. This is known as chronic priming, and for opposition groups attempting to influence the behavior of the public, it is a very effective method for convincing people to act against their better interests.

Intentionally influencing the public’s thoughts and behaviors might sound like the work of a large public relations firm, but the efforts of an effective opposition group are just as powerful.

According to a 2012 study “92 percent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising.” The audience receiving this content is vast; a 2015 survey found that 62 percent of the U.S. adult population uses Facebook. With social media platforms providing a near-constant connection to “friends,” social media users also have a front row seat to a pulpit.

How is the public supposed to know any side but the one it hears? To some degree, the fault lies with the status quo. Too often, the organizations that sponsor power projects take a very reserved, couched approach to garnering public support and publicizing their talking points.

The pro-project information may live on a website’s FAQ page or be provided to attendees at an open house, but other than that, much of the general public isn’t encountering the other side of the story.

Ultimately, project-sponsoring companies need to out-organize their opposition and adopt a proactive approach to educating the public. Like an effective political campaign, project messaging needs to be built out well in advance and adapted for distribution across a wide variety of media and marketing forums.

By engaging consumers with immersive, fact-based content, project teams can tamp down the negative rhetoric and establish a constructive dialogue. While it’s true that being proactive with project messaging might not keep activist groups from protesting or filing lawsuits, it will help level the playing field and allow project proponents to emphasize core messages.

Chris Deffenbaugh is Burns & McDonnell's public involvement specialist.



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