Helping America Understand and Adapt to a New Energy Reality

Peak oil and four principles of PR By Kurt Cobb

By on November 29, 2010 in Commentary

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.)

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

  • Alex

    I would like to add that hiding your true motivation helps:
    “I will make a fortune on long running options as the price of crude will be higher in the future. Why? Simply because everybody in the middle east lies about their reserves and state run oil companies are all incometent”.

    Nobody will argue against everyone in the middle east or venezuela or nigeria for that matter being a liar and no one defends state run oil companies. Never mention peak oil that’s a tree huggers thing serious folks talk about money ;-)

  • Bill Simpson near Slidell, Louisiana

    @ John Mach. Your excellent comment hit the nail EXACTLY on the head! The cheap, seemingly limitless supply of oil, enabled those in the industrialized world to live lives of relative ease and wealth, compared to previous generations, for much of the last century. That is the only world they know. Of course, cheap oil wasn’t the only factor that contributed to this period of relative abundance, but it was a critical factor. Wealth would have increased without cheap oil and gas, but not nearly to the degree that it did. It will be interesting to see how much living standards fall during the next few decades, as oil becomes more and more expensive.

  • John Mack

    Deprivation on a wide-scale hasn’t been seen in the USA since the 1930s. Consequently, the idea is alien in today’s culture. We have to realize the post-WW2 world is a truly unique one where the confluence of technology, peace and cheap oil created a decades long epic of economic growth. To now say to people it’s all over, that feast will turn to famine, simply overloads people’s comprehension of reality. I think it’s instructive to go back in time and ask ourselves how Americans would have reacted if they were told in the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s oil supplies would become severely constrained. I do believe, given people’s recent prior experience with hardship, there would have been a far greater willingness to entertain the idea of Peak Oil, and more importantly, to address the problem.

    Cheap oil over decades has created a “don’t worry, be happy” culture, not just in the USA, but around the world. This global mindset has reinforced itself so that now no other message will be considered.

  • Pingback: Drumbeat: November 29, 2010 : Hawaii Clean Power

  • http://www.resourceinsights.blogspot.com Kurt Cobb

    Thanks to all for their thoughtful comments. For now I have little hope that the mainstream media will come to understand and communicate the true import of peak oil. But this does not mean they won’t cover it. So, I’m trying to help people at least minimize the damage when they interact with the media, and if one is able to develop some rapport with a reporter or two, I think the best approach for now is to spread doubt about the official story of abundance.

    While it is certainly true that the arrival of peak oil will create consequences that cannot be ignored, it will be essential to give our best efforts in advance to set the stage for this moment. If the peak oil theme is not better entrenched in the public mind when the peak comes, I can easily imagine all those who will get blamed for oil shortages and this won’t include geology. A misdiagnosis could easily lead to policies and reactions that are not just foolish, but actually quite deadly. I am deeply concerned and do not have high expectations for the media when that time arrives. But I intend to do what I can in the meantime to prevent such a misdiagnosis which can only lead to mischief.

  • http://oleocenebackup.forumactif.com/forum.htm an391

    If the US had the slightest bit of courage and will to survive, it would increase its totally ridiculous gas tax.
    But it appears clearer everyday that it is fully commited to pursue total economic suicide.
    A bit sad.

  • proton

    yeah that`s all true but it`s so f…ing annoing that you have to be so f…ing carefull with those f…ing people!. are they f…ing morons or what? how stupid they have to be to get the peak oil issues. it`s f…ing obvious for god sake. god deamn it. we have no chance.

  • joe

    Excellent list of suggestions, thanks! I like very much your creativity suggestion and I’d like to mention a “creative” description from ASPO Switzerland chief Daniele Ganser: To imagine the issue of the past peak world think of the game musical chairs:
    In this game the players have to rush to sit down on a decreasing number of chairs – as those who don’t make it are the losers. Just like in the future rush for oil.

    And I appreciate your risk-based approach, which I think is the only way how to deal seriously with the issue. And this is for example how the recent reports from defense entities in the US, Germany etc. are done. In fact I’d like very much to have a professional insurance company look over the issue, trying to figure out how high the price tag of a “peak oil insurance” should be (How about Gail the Actuary?). I am pretty sure that the world is underinsured against this risk – and that the risk toll is rising with each year.

  • Bill Simpson near Slidell, Louisiana

    All very true, but until oil prices start to go way up, and stay there, few people will listen to warnings about the dire consequences of peak oil. There have been too many false alarms during the past 40 years. People have heard ‘wolf’ too many times, only to see the oil price go back down. Gasoline will need to stay above $5 a gallon in the USA for the masses to start asking why is it happening. Even then, the ‘greedy oil companies’ will initially be blamed.
    Only when the President explains what is happening at a beginning of one of his nationally televised news conferences in prime time, carried by all the networks, will many people finally realize what has happened, and what they will be facing for the rest of their lives. Watch what happens to the price of nickel and lithium that day, or the next, depending on the leaking of the President’s text.
    It is also possible that we will never hear a public discussion of the problem from the President, due to the fear of causing a panic, since nothing will be done about peak oil until far after the point of preventing economic decline from peak oil will have long been passed, before the deleterious effects become obvious to all.

  • H Dean Price

    One of the biggest “Red Herrings” the government has shown is their desire for all on-shore Navy Bases to get 50% of their food and fuel from locally homegrown resources within the next three years. At Camp Lejeune in NC, the program is called Food and Fuel 4 the Forces (FF4F). They are doing it under the pretence of wanting to “preserve farmland”. This is tremendous evidence that they are preparing for future oil shortages.

  • http://e2001.dyndns.org David Foster

    I think you’d really be wasting your time on the media, anyhow. Whatever subject you’re trying to cover, it always magically becomes either an advertisement or an apology for the corporation who sponsored it. Best just to stay off the air if you don’t want to become a joke.

    I assume that anyone reading this already understands that peak oil is going to make itself known to the world soon enough, in the form of gas lines, food shortages, etc… I really don’t see the point in trying so hard to warn those who don’t already see it coming. What can they do, besides panic?

  • Mike Bendzela

    Kurt, you are among the most articulate and restrained of our peak oil “sages,” and this article is a superb–and supremely depressing–summary of the difficulty people like you face when trying to convey this hideously difficult and complex subject to the public. I’m glad it’s not my job.

    But there’s another issue to face, the 500-lb gorilla in the room that the peak oil crowd doesn’t sufficiently address, the issue that really, really puts the media off.

    The folks in the media know how to peruse websites. And what do they find?

    That the peak oil “blogosphere” is populated–even dominated–by kooks and crackpots. I can’t put this too harshly.

    Paranoid conspiracy-monger Mike “Dick Cheney blew up the WTC” Ruppert; Survivalist-cum-astrologer Matt “massage beats science-based medicine” Savinar; the host of America-bashers, of whom James Howard “working-class people deserve to suffer” Kunstler and Dmitry “may the USA curl up and twitch like the USSR” Orlov are the chief sponsors; Matthew “there’s an open hole in the Gulf of Mexico” Simmons, Robert “human-induced global climate change is questionable because some conservative creationists don’t believe in it” Hirsch; immense flocks of “peak oil means my romanticized version of farming will save my ass and allow me to keep blogging” airheads.

    The list is unending and grows daily. It is hugely, awfully dispiriting and embarrasses the hell out of the likes of you, Tom Whipple and others who try to maintain an attitude of reason and profundity.

    So good effing luck, Kurt. Your reasoned approach is undercut daily by those who gaze into the peak oil glass and see only their own personal psychoses staring back.

  • Dave Hymers

    Very good article, I particularly like “Perhaps the most difficult thing for a peak oil activist to do is to keep it short.” As I have had first hand experience with this such an issue. My letter (below) has yet to be published in my local paper as the editor insists he wants letters under 350 words. I did in fact get it down to 336 and it has yet to appear.

    I’ve pasted it below because maybe someone else might draw something from it. Heck if you’ll think it will get published just copy and paste it to your local paper, feel free to use your name.

    “It’s The Energy That Matters How we use energy in the next decade and beyond is what will define us as a nation. For this reason we should discuss the future of oil and two recent reports:

    The Lloyds 360 Risk Assessment on Sustainable Energy Security for 2010 quotes from sources including the IEA (Intl. Energy Agency), US DOE (Dept. of Energy), USEIA (Energy Info. Admin.) and the US Chamber of Commerce all discussing how important a prospect of peak oil is. “A supply crunch appears likely around 2013 .. given recent price experience, a spike … of $200 per barrel is not infeasible.” The report continues on alternative fuels, shale, natural gas, alternative energies, climate change policy or lack thereof, interrupting investment decisions and is a recommended read.

    The US Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment Report 2010 talks about threats our military will face in the coming decades. “By 2030, demand is estimated to be nearly 50% greater than today.To meet that demand, even assuming more effective conservation measures, the world would need to add roughly the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s current energy production every seven years.” (Look to Iraq, who’s output could be 12 MBD [mil. barrels/day]. by 2016)

    The JOE report continues to say “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD” We are the largest importer of oil standing to be the most sensitive to any shocks in supply.

    Domestic reserves, in the Gulf or Alaska will be a blip in supply and take 10 years to see any benefit. We use 20m. barrels in a day, domestic shale will not support this level of use, serving only an increase in costs.

    This information should be on everyone’s radar, it should inform many decisions. Coming elections present opportunity for us to question our various candidates about their views on our energy future and how best to cushion the energy descent that an oil shock will bring.”

  • zeke

    And here I thought the media was about journalism. Appreciate the input. Reinforces what I’ve been watching for decades ie biased opinions, egos and an educational system producing illiterates. As far as fear vs hope. Both have a role but in a critical situation, hope will kill you. Those able to cope with fear think “I better figure a way to hell out of here”.

    Frankly, I don’t think it really matters anymore.

  • Don Hirschberg

    Thank you for a very readable article – I am not the sort who reads articles on PR. In fact I’m a bit anti-PR because I don’t like some PR tactics used on me. I did learn from your article.

    (Any connection with two Lewis Cobbs, father (Oxon.) and son “Bingo” b. ~1927, suburban Chicago, Grinnell College, Iowa?)

    I have taken to heart, “If you are explaining, you are losing.”

Top