Memo To The Energy Industry: Why Yelling At A Reporter Will Get You Nowhere

on October 8th, 2014

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Talk about killing the messenger.

At a recent gathering of the Denver Petroleum Club, Debbie Brown from the Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) answered a question from the audience about negative media coverage of the energy industry in The Denver Post. She responded by encouraging DPC members to call Denver Post Environmental Reporter Bruce Finley and complain about his reporting.

Brown’s call to action was well-intentioned. She was trying to motivate members to engage and spread the truth about the industry. But her methods were all wrong and serve as yet another reminder the industry still has work to do to manage its reputation and public relations efforts.

To be fair, there are many dedicated communications professionals who, in the face of intense and often ruthless opposition, spend countless hours trying to advocate for the industry. But the oil and gas industry is, at its core, an engineering culture, not a public relations agency. And sometimes this is on full display.

Here’s why Brown’s suggestion was a bad idea:

  • Sometimes, complaints are an indicator a reporter has done his job. Good journalists take pride in their role as community watchdog — responsible for holding powerful institutions accountable. Reporting alternative viewpoints about a controversial corporate strategy or business practice can raise awareness, encourage debate and keep an industry in check. While some complaints about media coverage are legitimate, others can be interpreted by a news organization as a method to stifle discussion. That’s why, in some newsrooms, complaints can be a badge of honor – something to be laughed off as a sign an industry is paranoid because it has something to hide.
  • If you’re going to kill the messenger, make sure you kill the right one. Bruce Finley covers environmental issues for The Denver Post. While his reporting often intersects with the energy industry, his journalism reflects the perspective of the contacts he’s established in the environmental sector. If you feel his stories don’t reflect a point of view commonly held in the energy industry, this may be why. But it doesn’t mean he’s a bad journalist. Besides, the energy industry isn’t getting short shrift. Mark Jaffe has covered the industry for The Denver Post since 2009. Make sure you put his reporting under the same scrutiny.

So what do you do if a news organization really does get it wrong? Even the best reporters make mistakes and commit factual errors.

Begin with this premise: responsible journalists operate under a strict code of ethics. Accuracy and fairness are not just cute buzzwords, they are the ethical foundation journalists operate under in order to justify their right to serve as the community watchdog.

So, challenging inaccurate reporting by presenting truthful and unbiased facts is not only essential for the public debate, it’s usually welcomed by the news organization. How else do they know if they are meeting their ethical standards or employing a bad reporter?

If you can cite specific factual errors in a news story, send an email to the appropriate editor and copy in the reporter. A credible newspaper will almost certainly run a correction or a clarification if you can prove the errors. These types of mistakes are easy to manage and you usually get satisfaction.

But what if a reporter’s story is accurate but lacks context? This is a common complaint of many in the energy industry. Responding to this issue is tricky and often requires a strategic response.

And here is where the energy industry often falls short.

Fierce competition prevents the industry from presenting a united front. Yes, competition inspires creative solutions to exploration, discovery and production, but it wreaks havoc on efforts to develop a consistent public relations response.

According to Debbie Brown, CRED Spokesperson Jon Haubert does attempt to address factual errors reported in the media. But CRED, the Colorado Oil & Gas Association and several other trade organizations that conduct media relations also spend significant resources on elections, lawmaking and building their membership. Creating a united front and a coordinated public relations response may not always be their sole priority.

Some major energy companies operating in Colorado don’t even belong to these organizations. But all are likely to complain to the media at some point. Wouldn’t the industry be better off if it spoke with one voice and coordinated its efforts?

News organizations will respond most effectively to one select representative or organization, not a slew of different organizations – each with varying agendas. A public relations manager that develops solid relationships with editors will, more often than not, see their complaints taken seriously if the concerns are organized, unbiased and truthful.

And here’s one more reason a strong, united public relations response is essential.

Today, the news industry is in the midst of an upheaval as it reworks its business model to function in the Internet age. This has led to severe cuts in staff and resources. Rather than offer up in-depth reporting which can thoroughly flush out an issue, news organizations compensate by offering up something inherently good but woefully inadequate: balance.

Many news organizations take a cheaper approach and provide surface coverage of both sides of an issue. The hope is, in the end, there will be a zero-sum gain. Both sides will receive coverage. Both sides will complain. And it will all even out in the end.

But just because a news organization covers both sides of an issue, doesn’t mean it’s getting closer to the truth. On the contrary, stories without context or in-depth information, lead to a woefully inadequate debate that continues on in perpetuity.

It’s the reason, a strong, united public relations response from the energy industry that educates journalists and the public is more important than ever – and far more useful than calling a newspaper reporter to complain.

Mark Roberts is a longtime journalist and news manager with experience in markets such as Houston, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C.. Mark is a Denver native and currently manages ViewMARK Communications, a public relations consulting firm serving clients in the energy industry.

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