The Australian coal boss of the world’s largest mining company has warned that the industry is losing the PR battle against environmental activists who are trying to shut down fossil fuels.
BHP Billiton’s coal President Mike Henry was right when he told a Brisbane meeting the resources sector needed to do a better job to counter misinformation. Yet he was wrong to characterize it as a PR battle.
An information battle maybe. A credibility battle perhaps. Possibly a battle for public trust. But when you concede you are in a PR battle it suggests the false idea that simply applying more PR will be the answer. To argue – as one coal CEO did – that the industry is trying to “limit the spread of misinformation, scare tactics and uninformed vitriol” is tantamount to reducing a major industry challenge to “our spin is better than their spin.”
Mr Henry said the sector needed to “put the facts on the table,” and that was the purported objective of the Minerals Council of Australia’s new “amazing little black rock” advertising campaign which promotes the “endless possibilities” of coal. Unfortunately the advert was so over-blown and self-important that it prompted instead a storm of social media ridicule and was labelled the PR fail of the year. And the hashtag #coalisamazing went viral for all the wrong reasons.
The Minerals Council’s coal director Greg Evans said the social media response was “totally predictable and expected.” However he then rather optimistically explained: “We are very pleased with the response to the campaign so far and it is tremendous to have such strong engagement on social media as this only helps to get the facts on the table about the positive contribution of the coal industry.” No, Mr Evans. Social media engagement which is overwhelmingly negative is not “tremendous.” And it doesn’t help get the facts on the table. Media ridicule simply distracts from any facts you are trying to present.
There are two underlying problems with this coal campaign. The first is that it’s a serious mistake to over-rely on facts and data to persuade. It’s a seductive idea that a fact is a fact is a fact. But it just ain’t so. In the same way that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, so too one person’s fact is another person’s propaganda, and yet another person’s matter of opinion. Anyway, who said it’s about your version of the facts? Just look at the study of Canadian anti-GM activists which found they were more likely motivated by anti-corporate and anti-globalization sentiment and desire for social reform rather than just concern for food safety.
The other problem is that in any information campaign, first you need to have your stakeholders listening. Only then can you start to communicate data and statistics. And even then you need to remember that data and statistics are information, they aren’t the solution and they’re not a campaign – especially when the issue is heavily driven by emotion and ideology.
Sadly, the little black rock advertising was so ill-conceived and distracting that people stopped listening when the campaign had hardly started. What coal really needs is an effectively targeted issue management strategy, not a PR battle they are almost certain to lose.