Anti-mask Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Fox News windbag Tucker Carlson, self-proclaimed Mensa member – and former Secretary of the US Department of Energy – Rick Perry, corrupt former Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley and an anonymous propagandist within the Wall Street Journal’s editorial department. What do they share in common? They’re all part of the anti-reality crowd that denies the climate crisis, supports using tax dollars to prop up fossil fuels, and can’t admit renewables are winning in the marketplace.
Now each has been lying about renewables “causing” the Texas power blackouts, enabled by the gas industry’s skilfully executed PR push that secured this forehead-smacking headline from the New York Times – “Frozen turbines and surging demand prompt rolling blackouts in Texas” – among others.
Clean-energy’s takeaway is clear: disrupting market incumbents isn’t frictionless. Surely as death and taxes, the disrupted will weaponise propaganda and influence-peddling. Nothing personal, it’s how big kids play in the era of low public faith in major institutions.
Many clean-techers will see the wave of fact-checking stories dissecting this attack as somehow sequestering its impact. Not so. In a public debate, it’s actually really hard to net a positive balance by meeting a well-designed, repeated lie solely with rebuttals and fact checking. At best, you recover just some of the lost ground.
After last year’s hatchet-job film by Michael Moore attacking clean-energy, we reviewed 12 years of these attacks, including their history, costs and responses. Moore’s “documentary” – 9.2 million views and counting – was the fifth. Let’s recap:
1. The “Climategate” email dump before the UN climate treaty negotiations in 2009 wrecked the consensus needed to forge a treaty.
2. 2010’s phony Solyndra “scandal” used the bankruptcy of a thin film solar maker to trigger a police raid, Congressional probes and an estimated $800M in aggressive political ads attacking then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election. This propaganda cratered bi-partisan support for clean-energy for over a decade.
3. March 2012 Wired magazine’s hatchet job declared the cleantech “bubble” had gone “bust”, chilling venture capital investment for several years.
4. January 2014 hit-job by the top US television news show was used to trigger attacks on effective clean energy policies in several major states.
The lying about renewables and the Texas blackouts reminds us that clean energy must stop relying on a bedraggled news media to fact check the accuracy of the next attack.
Instead, we should pool resources to build the communications infrastructure that allows us to:
1. Respond with crisis communications practices common throughout the business world.
2. Ditch outdated, ‘don’t give it oxygen’ thinking so common in clean economy circles. This rationalized conflict aversion kills effective responses. If you’re a communicator spouting “facts will speak for themselves” nonsense, your CEO should fire you. Seriously.
3. Mount defenses that are fast, continuous, concise, framed to win and scaled to match the original attack. Responding does increase the total attention paid to the attack… somewhat. But far better to have a story with 20% more attention and 80% better framing.
4. Shift the debate onto the greatest weakness of the attacker or the attack.
5. Publicly pressure people at news outlets who spread attacks from their original source. Editors, producers and on-air talent that enable propaganda to go viral should be called to account. “You spread it, you own it.”
Right now, little of this is being done by anyone in clean energy. Given that market share at stake, shouldn’t that change? Clean-energy can keep taking these broadsides – or we can learn from over a decade of bruises. The choice is ours.
· Mike Casey is president of Washington DC-based clean-tech communications agency Tigercomm. Read his earlier columns for Recharge here.