Social Media Campaign Wins Colorado Fracking Bans

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$26,000 plus online creativity trumped nearly $900,000 in oil and gas PR spending. (Photo credit: Bosc d’Anjou via Flickr)

It was big news in green energy circles in early November when voters in Fort Collins, Boulder, and Lafayette, Colorado and Oberlin, Ohio passed ballot initiatives to ban hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) of natural gas fields in their communities.

But the back story, as told by Forbes columnist Richard Levick, points to the decisive role of smart social media campaigning in denting the fracking boom that is sweeping the United States. Forbes and Climate Central both report that the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) spent nearly $900,000 on traditional advertising and PR, against $26,000 on the anti-fracking side. But three communities voted for moratoria or outright bans—Boulder with 76% support. A fourth ballot in suburban Broomfield failed by 13 votes and is headed for a recount.

A Hot Topic Goes Online

Natural gas is described either as a bridge to a sustainable energy future or a bridge to nowhere, reflecting the deepening controversy around the fracking process. Proponents insist fracking is safe. In an angrily dismissive report on the Colorado and Ohio ballots, posted on The Energy Collective, petroleum publicist Simon Lomax cited U.S. President Barack Obama and a parade of Cabinet officials, all arguing in favour of fracking.

“Fracking has been done safely,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and will be done for decades to come.

But in some neighbourhoods north of Denver, according to Climate Central, “city dwellers are seeing new oil and gas wells being fracked in their neighbourhoods and near public schools,” despite concerns about safe drinking water, radon exposure from shale deposits, and large releases of atmospheric methane, a potent and dangerous greenhouse gas. Although one recent study downplayed the methane threat, the question isn’t resolved and research continues.

So fracking had all the elements of a breakout topic for social media. The stakes were high. The impacts were local. The division of power—the oil and gas industry and half of the U.S. Cabinet lined up against scrappy local organizers—played to the immense power of social platforms to level the odds and empower community voices.

How to Win a Ballot

Levick’s after-action report in Forbes showed that anti-fracking forces earned their win by working hard, building an active online community, keeping up a steady flow of information, and transferring the relationships they were building from digital to doorstep.

“Social media outreach, online content development, and Search Engine Optimization and Marketing are all dominated by activist voices,” he wrote. “As a result, they are not only rallying significant grassroots opposition; they are doing it in ways that neutralize any advantage that industry money once provided.”

Levick, a fracking supporter, continued: “While industry money went into advertising and traditional ‘outreach’ campaigns that net diminishing returns in the digital age of public affairs…activists stretched every dollar with online efforts that prove far more effective.”

  • Content-rich microsites that clearly and succinctly argued the dangers of fracking
  • YouTube content that pointed to the risks of fracking.

By comparison, the industry’s advocacy group “built a microsite that, up until a few weeks ago, was static, non-social, and unsupported by devoted SEO or SEM campaigns.” Across the U.S., Levick reported that the top 10 anti-fracking groups have 2.1 million Facebook likes and 1.2 million Twitter followers, compared to the industry’s 28,000 likes and 70,000 followers.

It’s no huge surprise to see oil and gas companies outrun by content-rich social media campaigns by small, nimble grassroot groups. “Implementing content marketing in larger enterprises can be a political nightmare,” wrote Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi in a recent blog post.

Pulizzi’s quote points to a crucial factor that Levick left out of his analysis: beyond a simple accounting of the dollars, likes, followers, and tweets behind the pro- and anti-fracking campaigns, online communities thrive on content quality as well as quantity.

Through that lens, the big lesson from Colorado is that social media and content marketing are deeply interdependent. The anti-fracking campaigns had a genuine, heartfelt message that resonated with local communities and neighbourhoods, but they would never have had a chance if they’d had to compete for traditional media placements. COGA could have shifted to a digital strategy, but its pro-fracking advocacy would still have run into a disconnect with grassroot perception and experience.

From Digital to Doorstep

In his Energy Collective piece, Lomax said anti-fracking forces focused on local ballots because they lacked state-wide or national support. “The national activist groups are ‘going local’ out of desperation,” he wrote.

Sheltie on guard. TransCanada beware. Photo: Karen Irving

But going local is exactly the point, whether it’s to oppose dangerous energy development or support cleaner, greener alternatives. Renewable energy and energy efficiency sometimes make most sense and are easiest to manage at a smaller, decentralized scale. And while the threat of dirty energy is abstract until it comes to your community, a project outside your front door has a wonderful way of focusing your mind. That’s what happened to us over the summer, when TransCanada Pipeline proposed a diluted bitumen pipeline under the river where we walk our dog every morning. (Memo to TransCanada: You’re not fouling Maydeleh’s river.)

Which points to an important similarity between online and physical communities, and one of the keys to a digital to doorstep strategy. We form communities on social media because we share interests, issues, and concerns in common. We form community associations, school councils, and neighbourhood groups because we want to make things better where we live, work, learn, and play. The Colorado anti-fracking campaign picked up on that parallel, and showed that when communities organize on social media, they can win in the face-to-face world.

Thanks to Smarter Shift Social Media Strategist Jenise Fryatt for pointing me to Richard Levick’s column in Forbes.

  • Legislators Ask Patagonia to Rethink Anti-Fracking Stance

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