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Peak oil and four principles of PR

Peak oil activists and the mass media have had a rocky relationship. Activists often don’t understand how the media works and can’t fathom why reporters and editors are not better informed about energy issues. Those working in the media are constrained by the interests of their advertisers, their corporate owners and the necessity of focusing on ratings and circulation.

There is a pervading sense in the peak oil community that those in the mass media “just don’t get it.” And, there is an inclination to criticize them for either their lack of curiosity or their blatant indifference. And, that brings me to my four principles of public relations, the first of which is:

1. Never, ever publicly criticize the media. There’s no upside.

My father used to say that it was unwise to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. In the age of the Internet we now tend to think in terms of the number of eyeballs attracted to web content. But it comes to the same thing. If the media has the equivalent of a loudspeaker system designed for a heavy metal band concert and you have the equivalent of laryngitis, who do you think is going to win any dispute you have with them in the eyes of the public?

If someone in the media irks you, you can complain all you want to your spouse or spouse-equivalent. But you’re a fool to take on the reporter and media outlet publicly. If you do, they may not take out their irritation directly on you. But you will find them far less sympathetic to your point of view in the future and more likely to lean to the opposing side in the way they cover energy-related stories.

If you think a story contains errors or frames energy issues in the wrong way, it is pointless to ask for a correction. Corrections end up in obscure places in newspapers, magazines, and websites, if they end up anyplace at all. And, they almost never get on broadcast media. It is more effective to make yourself into a credible, reasonable, even-tempered source who will be glad to provide information for the NEXT story. That story, if you are lucky, will end up prominently positioned and do far more to overcome misconceptions from a previous story than any correction ever will.

2. Fear triumphs over hope.

The human nervous system is designed to build hope slowly and react to fear quickly. Why is this so? Because those are the characteristics which have enabled humans to survive. It’s not that fear always and everywhere triumphs over hope. But our evolutionary heritage makes us prone to react to danger much more quickly and completely than we do to the prospects of gain or pleasure.

Peak oil activists are pretty good at wielding fear, maybe too good. If you emphasize the possible catastrophic outcomes of declining oil, you will frequently get two reactions from an audience. One group will say, “If peak oil is coming so soon and going to be so bad, what’s the point of doing anything?” A second group will just go into denial. They’ll judge your assessment of the future to be so bleak that it can’t possibly be true because lots of other people would be talking about it if it were true, and they aren’t.

Fear has to find its resolution in action. What can I do? How will your suggestions help me weather the storm? When politicians demonize their opponents or scapegoat the helpless and marginalized in society, they are offering voters an avenue for action: “Vote for me and I’ll take care of these rascals who are causing our problems.” Peak oil activists can certainly do better than that, and many now give detailed practical advice to help people prepare for a post-peak oil world. Perhaps the best way to start with audiences new to the peak oil issue is to give them “no regrets” strategies, ones that will make their lives better whether peak oil hits soon or not. Some ideas include insulating their homes, riding a bicycle whenever practical, sourcing more of their food from local producers, and getting to know their neighbors. All of these things can enhance people’s lives no matter what happens, and it puts them on a road that allows successful adaptations that will inculcate a willingness to do more.

3. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for a peak oil activist to do is to keep it short. Now, if you are having a conversation with a group of friends where the object is to hash things out, it’s fine to ignore this dictum. If you are performing public education, you are probably talking before an attentive, curious and self-selected audience. They will often put up with lot of explaining. After all, that’s what they’ve come for. But if you are in a public dogfight in the media, you definitely don’t want to be the one who is explaining things.

Here’s why: When communicating with large audiences, anyone saddled with the task of explaining complex scientific and technical information is likely to turn off the audience. First, the audience will find it hard to follow such explanations. Second, they’ll wonder why the person providing the explanation feels compelled to provide such detail. He or she will appear to be on the defensive. This is the key point. The public perceives that those who are prone to excessively long explanations are actually trying to confuse them or hide something. This perception may be wholly without foundation, but it is a hard one to fight.

The best strategy is to force your opponents (who may be physically present or simply quoted alongside you in a newspaper article) to do the explaining. Some possible grenades to lob include the following:

  • Explain why many OPEC members mysteriously claimed increases in their reserves by 50 to 100 percent in the mid-1980s without any large discoveries.
  • Explain why with the very high historical oil prices of the last decade, we have not seen the predicted glut in oil supply.
  • Why does the promised bounty of oil from oil shale never seem to appear even when oil prices scale $100 a barrel?
  • Some 80 percent of the world’s oil reserves are controlled directly by countries and their government-run oil companies. Many of these countries are run by secretive, authoritarian regimes and do not allow any outside audit of their claims. Why should we be confident about the reserve numbers they report? Is it wise policy to simply take their word for it?

An alert activist can probably think of many more, but you get the idea. Let the other side explain all these things. Your job for now is to plant doubt concerning the official story. Without that doubt most people will never consider the peak oil point of view.

If you have some creative talent, an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, or a stand-up comedy routine. This is not the same as explaining. It’s storytelling in the classic sense. It’s very hard to argue with a piece of art. People can comment on it. But an antagonistic viewer is forced to choose between aesthetic criticism (which doesn’t really strike at your message) and attacks on your message. Attacks on your message will seem off base to most people since, after all, it’s just a piece of fiction or a song or a work of art, so lighten up! The critic will come off as a killjoy which is perfect for you. This will be especially true if what you are doing is funny.

4. The cover-up is always far more damaging than the screw-up.

This one is simple. If you make a mistake, admit it, apologize for it, if necessary, and then move on. In the context of peak oil activism, this principle is less applicable than the others. Peak oil activists strive to shed light on energy issues, not cover them up. Still, it is possible to screw up, and one of the best ways to do that is to make predictions.

When it comes to making predictions for reporters, I have one word of advice: DON’T! The currently well-established facts are scary enough. If you must talk about the future, talk about it in terms of risks, not forecasts. If you make predictions, you are setting yourself up for a fall, and then the cycle of anger with the media is likely to get hold of you all over again. And, as I’ve said, there’s absolutely no upside to expressing it publicly.

The notion, however, that governments and oil companies are not squaring with the public is a useful idea. But it is reckless to accuse them of some sort of conspiracy of silence. A better way to talk about this is that it is not in the interests of public officials to announce the peak oil predicament since they have no plan to address it. And, it is not in the interests of large international oil companies to talk about peak oil since it would imply that their businesses would soon start winding down, something that can hardly be salutary for oil company stock prices.

Conclusion

While it may seem unfair in some ways that the world of mass communications requires the understanding and application of these principles, it is more effective to deal with the realities of mass communications than to try to change them. Sticking with these principles doesn’t always assure you of success, but it does keep you out of a lot of unnecessary trouble.



Kurt Cobb is the author of Prelude, a peak oil novel, (www.preludethenovel.com) and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has appeared on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, Common Dreams, and many other sites. He writes a blog called Resource Insights. He worked in advertising for more than a decade and has in recent years served as a media consultant to several political campaigns.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (November 30). Removed the first paragraph at the request of Kurt Cobb and Sharon Astyk. It was accidentally pasted in on the version that appeared on the ASPO-USA website. -BA

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