|Five Questions about the FracTracker Alliance and Challenges of Strategic Communication in Unconventional Oil
Sam Malone is Manager of Education, Communications, and Partnerships at the FracTracker Alliance (www.FracTracker.org), a national nonprofit with offices in California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
What is FracTracker and when and how did it get started?
Conventional oil and gas drilling for commercial purposes has been occurring in the United States for well over 100 years. More recently, drilling has taken a new route, utilizing a variety of unconventional extraction techniques to improve the return of hydrocarbons to the surface. These newer activities, often broadly referred to as “fracking” are the thrust of FracTracker’s work, but we also look at the collective issues associated with oil and gas development – and its legacy – in all of its forms.
The concept of FracTracker was sparked in 2009 by community concerns around the risks of unconventional natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Community members brought these concerns to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) seeking to understand whether the environment and health could be negatively impacted by this industrial operation. At that time, however, there was very little published research, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the industry were not releasing sufficient data that would enable us to alleviate these concerns or begin to research the potential impacts. To fill that void, in 2010 we developed a platform to collect, map, and share these missing data points - called FracTracker.org. In 2012, we spun FracTracker off into a non-profit, now called FracTracker Alliance.
The mission of the FracTracker Alliance is to share maps, data, and analyses to communicate impacts of the global oil and gas industry and inform actions that positively shape our energy future. FracTracker.org, the website, currently provides oil and gas maps for over 30 U.S. states with unconventional oil and gas activity, as well as national and international thematic maps. Maps are interpreted and contextualized by accompanying blogs, data analyses, and photos. Our timely content examines drilled wells, violations, proximity to vulnerable populations, pipelines, waste disposal sites, sand mining operations, and more. We provide these resources primarily for the general public, organizations, media, researchers, and regulators.
Why did you decide to join FracTracker?
I suppose you could say that I have been here since the beginning of FracTracker. In 2009, I began to work for the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities while finishing a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Because CHEC’s role is to investigate local environmental health issues, I was intimately involved in the conceptualization and launch of FracTracker.
In 2012, with the guidance of our new executive director, Brook Lenker, I helped to transition the project FracTracker into the non-profit FracTracker Alliance. I now serve as the organization’s Manager of Education, Communications, and Partnerships.
What does your typical work day look like in terms of communication with those affected by, as well as engaged in, unconventional oil and gas drilling and related economic activity?
Much of our work at FracTracker is virtual because of the focus of the organization on our website and mapping services – and the fact that we have nine staff members to cover oil and gas issues across the entire United States. Through both online and in-person meetings, I will sometimes work with concerned citizens and community groups, providing data, maps, and resources for understanding the caveats and risks of unconventional drilling. I am also responsible for managing national media requests, our social media platforms, and the content and design of our website.
The nature of our communications depends widely on the method by which we are communicating and includes educational events in person, tweets, webinars, etc. We must be cognizant of both the method and the audience.
Has the way unconventional oil and gas drillers communicate with their stakeholders changed since FracTracker was started in 2010?
When we first started working in this field in Pennsylvania, industry communication emanated mainly from industry groups. Now, some companies are more directly engaged in dialogue on the issues. In general, the industry is also running more advertising campaigns now compared to in 2010. They spend large sums of money advertising, adjusting their messages, and refuting critics.
What do energy companies engaged in unconventional oil and gas drilling do right from a strategic communication point of view and where do you see room for improvement?
In my opinion, the best practice is transparency and admittance that problems do indeed occur. A few companies, especially those with better corporate responsibility metrics, have done this and acknowledged that they are attempting to minimize risk and maximize benefits for all involved. There is no such thing as zero risk.
Other companies have opted toward a spin-and-deceive approach. Instead of improving practices, they invest in communications that restructure the truth in effective sound bites and carefully selected messages and imagery. I would encourage them all to adopt the former approach rather than the latter.
We have seen notable improvement in industrial and regulatory transparency around operations data. In a matter of four to five years you can now obtain data on the location of wells, production figures, waste statistics, and in some cases even regulatory compliance records. However, there is still wide variability in terms of comprehensiveness and accuracy from company to company and state to state. This variability creates serious issues for regulators, politicians, researchers, citizens, and groups like FracTracker. A lack of transparency and data makes understanding the true risks of today’s oil and gas activity – from water withdrawals to compliance of regulations by operators – difficult to comprehend and impossible to guide informed decision-making.
Key Questions Management Must Ask before Communicating in Times of Crisis
As part of our crisis response practice, C4CS® consultants work closely with senior managers once a critical situation has occurred. Client partners who have not worked with us during the pre-crisis phase often lack sufficient crisis communication planning and are hence unprepared to respond to stakeholder information needs.
In order to communicate effectively and accomplish business objectives in times of crisis, our consultants guide management through a number of important questions that help determine the strategic communication approach, as well as what crisis related information will be communicated.
The following questions should be asked when developing the strategic and tactical communication response to a crisis.
- What is the desired outcome of the communication? (Objective)
- What will be communicated? (Content)
- Who will initiate the communication? (Sender)
- Which stakeholders will be communicated with? (Recipient)
- How and / or where is the communication going to happen? (Channel / Tool)
- When will the communication take place? (Timing)
In addition, these two questions should be asked after communicating during a crisis so subsequent crisis related communication can be fine tuned.
- Was the communication objective met?
- Is there a need to adjust the communication strategy and specific messages?
Information provided to stakeholders following the chosen strategic and tactical communication approach should at a minimum address the following questions.
If you have any questions concerning this article, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
- What happened / is currently happening?
- When did it (first) happen?
- Where did it / is it happen(ing)?
- Who was / is / will be affected?
- Why did it / is it happen(ing)?
- Is the situation under control?
- What was / is / will be done about it?
- What danger did / does / will it pose?
- When and how will more information be made available?
- Who may be contacted for additional information?
Food For Thought
“Ignorance gets companies in trouble.
Arrogance keeps them there.”