Energy Industry, The Media & Public Perception – Friends or Foes? * update *

I’ll be attending the Women’s Global Leadership Network Energy & Technology Conference Tuesday morning, where I’ll be moderating a panel discussion titled: Energy Industry, The Media & Public Perception – Friends or Foes? (which people on Twitter can follow via #WGLC)
The description of the event (not my language, mind you):

“Industry public relations professionals and the media duke it out on the issues of media portrayal of the industry. Answers to questions on the perception, advice from companies who are appealing to the consumers’ latest concerns and changing their outreach.”

Panelists, include:

• Stephen Harris, Public Relations Manager, Schlumberger

• Don Clarke, American Association of Petroleum Geologists

• Gina Gaston, Reporter and Co-Anchor, KTRK-TV, ABC 13 Eyewitness News

Assuming I don’t suffer any serious injuries, I’ll let you know how it goes.
The panel was a lot of fun, even though we didn’t get to all the audience questions and I forgot to say what the next panel was…. in any case.
I started by asking the energy industry people on the panel to say what they think media gets annoyed about the most when dealing with them, while we reporters said what we think they dislike about us. Stephen and Donald said they imagine reporters complain about their slow response times, their unwillingness to talk about tough issues. Gina and I said we think industry assumes we approach every story only in search of the negatives, with a preconceived notion of what the real story is even before we talk to them. Turns out we were all pretty correct in our assumptions.
Donald, who has worked as a geological consultant to the City of Long Beach, Calif. used an example of two stories that ran in the Long Beach Post to illustrate the extremes of working with media. In one case he got a great front-page-with-photo story about a meeting of the local geological society with a particularly interesting speaker.
A week or two later the same reporter wrote a story based on a single comment made by a U.S. Geological Survey engineer at a press conference about how Long Beach could be vulnerable to a 50-foot tsunami under the right conditions. Donald answered a few of the reporters questions about such a possible occurrence (said it was a stretch) but the four-column-front-page headline complete with huge color map the next day trumpeted that the city was in danger from a tsunami.
The fallout, Donald said, was near pandemonium as other media outlets flooded his office and the city’s with calls, panick that the city would lose its bond rating, no one would develop in Long Beach again, etc. He was also threatened with firing and forced to go through media training. It turns out he did everything the media training experts told him to, he said, answered the reporter’s questions well, but there’s little one can do to anticipate an inflamatory headline.
A few of the questions from the audience:
Why don’t all the slick add campaigns from Exxon, BP etc. work in improving the image of the industry? Gina said in Houston those messages don’t fall on deaf ears since so many of us work in the industry, and for the television stations there’s a lot of partnering with the energy companies on community events/charities etc. Personally I think it’s a hard sell for any company, no matter how good your ad agency is, because most American’s know so little about how we get our energy and what little they know they likely have a negative outlook on. It will take more than TV ads to educate people about energy.
Why did the story about Halliburton having undue influence over energy policy/getting sweetheart deals from the government last for so long? I said I thought it was pretty damn hard to ignore that the Vice President was chairman of the company and there’s no doubt he drove energy policy in the Bush administration. Also it’s hardly unusual for major government contractors to get scrutiny, but there’s little doubt it resonated with Democratic voters, so opponents in D.C. kept it front and center. Gina noted Cheney’s a pretty strong personality, so media will always cover anything regarding him that seems controversial.
How can the energy industry get more positive stories written/aired? Gina said most television stations do not have energy reporters, even in Houston, and every story needs a strong visual component. That’s part of the reason accidents get so much attention while routine happenings that might be considered positive are much less likely to get air time. I don’t think one can or should ask for positive stories but aim for more accurate or balanced pieces. The problem is newsrooms have fewer and fewer resources (namely reporters and editors) and much less space for stories than in the past, so getting the full story in isn’t as easy as one might think.