Oily Ducks, PR, and Why Honesty Isn’t Enough

By Matthew Wheeland - April 19, 2013

In 2012, there were 783 lobbyists representing the interests of 200 oil and gas companies. They spent just shy of $140 million, with nearly a quarter of that coming from three companies: Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Koch Industries. By comparison, the solar industry spent approximately half a million dollars in 2011 on lobbying.

It’s beyond David and Goliath, isn’t it? A fairly nascent industry is going up against heavyweights that can clobber us into next week with sheer spending power and the influence that money can buy. On top of that, we’re challenging well-ingrained habits among ordinary folks accustomed to paying their good ol’ utilities companies for energy. It’s tough to wrap your head around another way of doing things.

But as much money as the oil and gas industry have spent, they do have a crucial Achilles heel: public opinion. No matter how spectacularly humanistic their marketing campaigns are, all it takes is one photo of a duck covered in oil or a black stream of goo drifting down a suburban street in Arkansas to remind people that the real cost of oil reliance is that it is ultimately destructive to our planet.

On the other hand, solar fights the good fight. We are the solution to the problems that people see with oil. Well, we’re one solution (and we’re biased, obviously). But as an industry we can’t go toe-to-toe with Exxon in Washington – and that’s actually okay. Why? Because we know that change really starts in that place where oil and gas always flounder: public opinion.

The solar industry has known from the very beginning that transparency is our ally. But that also leaves us open to a lot of misinterpretation – both selective and genuine – as people grapple with the complexity of this new thing they’re being asked to do. It isn’t enough to be honest with your customers these days. You have to give them the tools to make their own decisions. Empowering people with information is the new way of doing things, and that is something the oil and gas industries can’t seem to grasp where as, at least here at PURE, we strive to do every single day.

A good public relations strategy isn’t just about getting great articles or making headlines. It’s about inspiring change – a lot of change – through as many avenues as possible. Everything counts, from SolarChats hosted by EcoOutfitters to posting op-eds in major publications, or even attending town halls and HOA meetings. There are conversations to be had everywhere. So while solar might not be able to match oil and gas giants dollar for dollar in lobbying, when it comes to the public arena, we can outmatch them simply by continuing what we’re doing: educating, being transparent, and fighting the fight the ultimately ends with betterment for the planet and the people on it.


Ashley is the Director of Communications at PURE and oversees media relations, social channels, blog content, and about half a dozen other fun things. She’s into telling stories about the importance of renewable energy and engaging in conversations that lead us all to a healthier planet. She’s also into muay thai, so if PR doesn’t work, she’s got some flying elbows for the oil regime. You can reach her at ashley (at) (dot) org, or follow her on Twitter at @aseashore.

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