The oil and gas industry has to contend with its share of controversies, including subjects that elicit negative feedback derived from the terminology itself. For example, a Google search for fracking generates nearly 7 million hits, and more than half of the results on the first page link to websites or organizations that oppose oil and gas development. The hashtag #fracking on Twitter yields plenty of positive tweets but decidedly more negative views.
A report posted on Forbes’ website in November 2013 detailed how the use of social media by fracking opponents — and the failure to leverage it by the industry and its supporters — actually may prevent oil and gas activity from occurring. The report came just days after four Colorado towns voted to ban or temporarily halt fracking:
The report goes on to describe how the top 10 groups opposed to fracking have combined Twitter followers and Facebook likes that number in the millions; the numbers for supporters are in the tens of thousands. The researcher also looked at a single 24-hour period for use of the hashtag #fracking, which registered about 1,500 individual tweets. The findings were significant:
“What’s most interesting is there is no engagement by industry. No communicating with influential neutrals, no two-way conversation. It’s just another one-way street dominated by the anti-fracking community. Activists aren’t monolithic or dumb. They are open to conversations and new ways of looking at the world. Talk with them (not at them), and most will listen, and some will even re-tweet a different point of view.” (Emphasis added.)
The researcher concluded: “Television and newspaper advertising, campaign contributions and heavy lobbying fees no longer guarantee successful outcomes for the energy — or any other — industry.”
This raises an important question: What explains the difference between fracking and Keystone XL on social media?
There are a variety of theories, although the most compelling is the nature of the discussion for each. In the case of Keystone XL, the project, by definition, is a national issue. This undertaking must secure authorization from the U.S. Department of State. A broad nationwide dialogue over energy, when framed in the context of jobs and security, often will favor the oil and gas industry. The debate over fracking, however, has gone increasingly local after activists largely failed to secure support for banning the process at national or state levels. (Only Vermont has banned fracking outright — a symbolic stance as the state has no significant underground gas deposits.) Opponents of development now frame the argument not as a ban on oil and gas development (which many of them, in fact, do support) but merely as community concern over local impacts. Local organizing is made even easier with the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook.
Unfortunately, many in the oil and gas industry have continued to prioritize federal and state regulatory engagement, leaving community outreach near the bottom of their strategic concerns even though fracking is pre-eminently a local issue, with local municipalities possessing the power to grant or withhold licenses for exploration and production. In this environment, it’s important to remember that social is local.
Social media provides a channel for the industry and its allies to communicate directly with the people who are important to such organizations. Facebook has geo-targeting tools that allow companies to tailor their messages to designated regions and to put updates in front of users in those specific areas. With some basic research, it’s easy to find hashtags on Twitter that people in any given state or city can use when discussing an issue, which, in turn, allows for targeting messages to distinct communities.
For the oil and gas industry in particular, social media can provide a highly effective medium for communicating with key demographics. According to a recent survey, more than 70 percent of web users in 24 countries are sharing content on social media; for those under the age of 35, the number is over 80 percent. That last number is important as younger users tend to view the oil and gas industry in the least favorable light. When Gallup asked Americans whether they support increased production of coal, oil and natural gas as compared with more development of wind and solar, only about 20 percent of respondents aged 18-34 picked coal, oil and gas. That’s 12 points lower than the overall average among all adults and the lowest of the age groups sampled.
Put succinctly: The demographic with which the oil and gas industry needs to improve its image also is the most active on social media, sharing content more frequently than any other group.