Too much FUD and too little facts about fracking

Fracking equipment

If there’s one major issue of significant public interest today that’s shrouded in fear, uncertainty and doubt, it’s fracking.

If you believe the supporters of this mining process to extract natural gas and petroleum deposits from shale rock – formally known as “hydraulic fracturing” – it could be the salvation of our energy needs for the foreseeable future, maybe for the next forty years or more.

If you believe the opponents of fracking, it’s a major threat to the environment and to public health, causes earth tremors if not actual quakes and is not the answer to meeting our energy needs.

In the midst of all this FUD are governments looking for that political and economic Holy Grail of meeting energy needs that is low cost to do so, will create jobs, stimulate the economy and doesn’t have significant environmental impact, among other things. And might get the political party in government re-elected at the next election.

Who to believe? When trying to find some facts about fracking itself and the consequences of employing the techniques to extract the energy resources from the ground, what confidence can you have that the information you do find is trustworthy? Or rather, those who curate that content can be trusted?

For instance:

A few reports from the mainstream media (plus opinion in one blog post). But is it all just so much propaganda?

Seeing TV news reports of the recent protests surrounding the Balcombe site in southern England and the plans by Cuadrilla, an oil and gas exploration and production company, to carry out exploratory drilling to determine suitability of the site for actual fracking, I’m left befuddled and not knowing who to believe.

Even though the Balcombe protests look far too organized to be purely concerned local citizens – to me, it smacks of professional protesters parachuted in, so to speak, by a serious and well-financed organization, one with a big political agenda and little transparency in who’s behind it all – I’m also left with increasing alarm:  what if the anti-frackers are right?

Now take a look at this video I came across the other day, via Robert Llewellyn. I have no idea who the producer “Millie Thedog” is, what axe he or she may be grinding (or not), nor whether he or she is an information source I can trust. I have no information on that.

Yet this six-minute video presents a calm but disturbing assessment of the alleged impact of fracking in southern England if it actually happens, especially on the scale the video claims.

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it at YouTube.)

After watching the video for the first time, I asked myself: “Just because we could, does it mean that we should?”

Where’s the truth? Is it out there?

(Image at top of page via Cuadrilla Resources)

This story about PR qualifies for ‘must read’

Alastair CampbellEvery now and again, something is written or said about the practice of public relations, its development and evolution, usually with the phrase “this is a must read” attached.

In my experience, much of what’s described as “must read” is anything but, especially when the words “social media” are added; it’s just spin for the PR.

Now and again, though, something is written that you really must read for its clarity of thought, its intellectual excellence, its demonstration of innovation in strategic thinking, its simplicity in and clarity of that thinking, and its powerful insight.

Alastair Campbell has written such an item, published today in The Huffington Post.

In “Why the World of PR Is Changing,” Campbell – most widely known as the communications chief at 10 Downing Street during Tony Blair‘s tenure there – tells a compelling story about a topic that has occupied thousands of column inches and millions of pixels height and width, taking as its foundational introduction a difficulty he encountered in planning a trip to Australia and how it was resolved in a conversation via Twitter:

[…] the PR landscape, like the media landscape, has changed beyond all recognition, and that public affairs now covers any interaction between any two people or organisations. That exchange was between me, my phone, and a guy on the other side of the world who saw a relevant Aussie address come up, and who got a grip. No journos, no PRs, no marketeers, just someone with a sense of the product – in this case one person’s feeling for Australia – and an understanding it was worth stepping in. The product, large or small, is what will decide the strength or weakness of the PR. Strategy, to me, has always been about the joining up of dots to paint a picture in the public mind as close to the one you want them to see. @sandihlogan landed a dot on my Aussie landscape that erased the negative dots my application had been landing.

And the stark simplicity of this, reflecting on an interview he did with former US president Bill Clinton around the time his autobiography came out:

[…] Objective, Strategy, Tactics had always been No. 1 on the list of 10 guidelines for leadership and strategy that I had on a postcard I always carried with me.

  1. OST.
  2. Be bold.
  3. Be adaptable.
  4. Best team leaders are best team players.
  5. Stay calm in a crisis.
  6. Listen but lead.
  7. Get good out of bad.
  8. YOU set the agenda.
  9. Head above parapet.
  10. Visualise the victory.

These are but two insightful snips from  a lengthy post that in my book qualifies as “must read.”

Do read Campbell’s full story that, The Huffington Post notes, is from a speech he gave at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs Annual Oration on June 27 in Melbourne, Australia.

It could be a terrific start point for making your own stories “must read.”

Number 10 hands out Twitter exclusives to favoured journalists

UK Prime Minister

A discussion topic in episode 701 of the FIR podcast, published today, looks at a question asked in the Metro newspaper last week: should British politicians take notes from Barack Obama’s campaign team?

The Metro’s excellent report looked at the key role social media played  – especially Twitter – in both of the US president’s election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 in enabling direct engagement with reporters and opinion-makers as well as with voters in communities across the United States (see detailed analysis of 2012 from Pew’s Journalism. org).

The discussion that guest co-host Stephen Waddington and I had in the podcast considered key elements of Obama’s campaign as described in the Metro story by Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. Her conclusion:

[…] Summing up the lessons of 2008 and 2012, Ms O’Malley Dillon said: ‘If there’s anything to be learned from our campaign, it’s that we made it a priority, we believed in it from the top to the bottom, we ensured the resources were there and we allowed it to help dictate for us in some ways the type of things we were doing based on how people use these forums.

‘We weren’t trying to recreate the wheel, we were trying to be part of the dialogue and I think that’s one of the many ways we were able to be successful.’

Keeping that in mind, Wadds and I broadly concluded in  our discussion that a) yes, British politicians would benefit from studying the role of social media in US election campaigning; and b) there’s little to suggest that they are or have done so – certainly at a central-government level that seems isolated from grassroots ‘social politics’ – even though the next general election in the UK is only two years away at most.

So The Guardian’s report yesterday on the role of Twitter in how Downing Street aims to secure goodwill from journalists by revealing news before its official announcement by ministers had me thinking about what looks like a chasm of a difference in how American politicians see social media channels like Twitter and how UK ones do.

There, it looks more open and inclusive. Here, it seems to be secretive, selective and controlled.

That’s a great pity if it does turn out to be how my cynical view of the political communication landscape appears. The way in which social media channels can galvanize political engagement with and by those who have the final word on who gets elected, as evidenced by the US experience, clearly is firmly understood by government communicators:

[…] “We’re getting to where people are these days,” said Anthony Simon, the head of digital communications in the prime minister’s office.

“Increasing numbers of people are on Twitter – journalists, stakeholders and professional groups – and to be part of that conversation is vital for any government department. It’s democratic because it’s open to anyone and we don’t go on it for the sake of it or over-rely on it – it’s a means to an end.”

I hope that the ‘means to an end’ becomes a great deal more honest- and authentic-looking than the current situation that The Guardian describes.

(The Guardian’s report below is published with their permission via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.)

Powered by article titled “Number 10 hands out Twitter exclusives to favoured journalists” was written by Josh Halliday, for The Guardian on Sunday 28th April 2013 21.07 Europe/London

Asked in 2009 why he didn’t use Twitter, David Cameron famously responded “too many twits might make a twat” . Four years later, Number 10 is attempting to move more rapidly into the digital future with a Twitter strategy that includes handing out “Twitter exclusives” to favoured journalists for release before they are officially announced by ministers.

In a tactic reminiscent of the BBC satire The Thick of It, Twitter is also being used to try to quash negative stories before they gain currency in a news cycle where every second counts.

“Every minute that passes the poison is spreading into the system to all sorts of roots and you need to find a way to cauterize that very, very quickly,” said a senior No 10 source.

The Twitter exclusives aim to secure goodwill from journalists who are often under pressure to break news online before rivals, but will irritate those who believe announcements should be made in parliament.

Many of Downing Street’s new media strategies were introduced by Craig Oliver, the prime minister’s communications director, who insisted on moving a Twitter monitor into the No 10 newsroom when he assumed his role in January 2011.

According to colleagues, Oliver likes to describe the social network as similar to fire: a useful tool in the right hands, but massively destructive if it is misused.

The analogy might leave some scratching their heads, but Cameron’s inner circle wants all his MPs to take Twitter seriously – even if the 2015 general election is, in internet time, light years away.

One example of using Twitter to “seal” a negative story came after the Evening Standard mistakenly broke George Osborne’s budget embargo on the social network last month. A mortified journalist promised to tweet a swift apology but Oliver ordered a pre-emptive tweet from the Tory press office account, to ensure the reporter’s promise was met.

Conservative party headquarters brief MPs on good talking points for Twitter, using them to “tweet as a muscular force” about a single topic or news item to hammer home the message. Some 418 MPs have joined the tweeting fray, according to the news wire Tweetminster, up from 176 in 2009.

“Twitter used to be seen as tool for the egocentric and verbally incontinent,” said a senior No 10 source. “But the reality is that it’s an extraordinarily useful way of getting talking points out there.”

Downing Street has not always been so fleet of foot – it took hours to respond to the online mockery prompted by Osborne’s first-class train ticket debacle last October – but Cameron’s inner circle now recognises that the case for a clear Twitter strategy is “unanswerable”.

“We’re getting to where people are these days,” said Anthony Simon, the head of digital communications in the prime minister’s office.

“Increasing numbers of people are on Twitter – journalists, stakeholders and professional groups – and to be part of that conversation is vital for any government department. It’s democratic because it’s open to anyone and we don’t go on it for the sake of it or over-rely on it – it’s a means to an end.”

The most popular tweet sent by the government was Cameron’s tribute to Baroness Thatcher, prompting 3,500 retweets. The most divisive was when No 10 tweeted every single reshuffle appointment last September, which led to a mass unfollowing from less devoted users but praise from politicos.

But the jury is out on whether the rest of Britain is as Twitter-addicted as the Westminster Village. “I think the majority of activity comes from a fairly small group and most MPs have fairly small audiences,” said Alberto Nardelli, the founder of the app Tweetminster, pointing out that 1.2m people follow MPs on the site – about the same size audience combined as Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

“I think we’ve gone beyond a ‘should politicians use Twitter?’ phase. It’s now how will it be used,” he added. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

When robots rule the world


The idea that computers rather than people could make decisions about other people’s intentions in the workplace that I wrote about recently – an IBM security tool can flag “disgruntled employees” – may be the tip of an evolutionary iceberg that spotlights a wider and deeper issue facing developed countries like the US and many of the EU member states.

The Financial Times reports on how the US economy is becoming steadily more automated and how manufacturing employment is shrinking (and doing so worldwide, the FT notes) while manufacturing activity rises.

[…] During Mr Obama’s presidency, IBM’s Watson has proved computers can outfox the most agile minds, drones have become America’s weapon of choice, the driverless car is now a reality and the word “app” has been detached from its origin. No longer the realm of science fiction, the rise of robots now poses the central economic dilemma of the Obama era.

See a fuller assessment in this FT Alphaville video discussion.

I wonder how much such workplace automation is behind unemployment statistics for the European Union such as reported by the EU Observer yesterday:

Eurostat estimates 25.926 million men and women in the EU were unemployed in December 2012, with 18.715 million of them in the euro area. In both zones, rates have risen markedly compared with December 2011, from 10.7% to 11.7% in the eurozone and from 10.0% to 10.7% in the EU.

The eye-popping metric – almost 26 million people across the EU (total population over 503 million) are without a job.

The reality may not be dystopian but it’s not a pretty picture.

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Shape the debate about the UK and the EU

David Cameron EU speech

A few days ago, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in London on what he called “the future of Europe,” setting out his stall about the UK, the European Union, Europe itself and how he sees the future for these entities.

I watched his live delivery on the TV news. I liked much of what I heard: in essence, a call to action for anyone with a point of view about the UK’s future as a member of the EU, or not, to articulate that point of view, and contribute to the debate. “Join the conversation,” if you will.

I am quite sure the conversation that will ensue between now and the end of this Parliament’s life in 2015 will encompass the widest diversity of opinion about the European Union and the UK’s role in and/or with it that it’s possible to imagine. The conversation will undoubtedly get very ugly at times among the politicians, special interest groups, and others. Indeed, also no doubt among friends in the pub on a Saturday night.

The culmination of Cameron’s call to action will be a referendum offered to voters in the United Kingdom during the first half of the next Parliament after 2015 to decide, in a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, whether they wish the United Kingdom to remain a member of the EU, or quit. That, said Cameron, will happen if his Conservative Party wins the next election and if he continues as Prime Minister.

There were a lot of ifs, and no mention of what may or may not happen if his party is in a coalition government again. No details in the speech either but, said Cameron, that’s coming:

[…] The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament.

It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart.

And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.

It will be an in-out referendum.

Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament.

So in the coming months, and continuing right through to 2015, I’d expect to see a great deal of communication about this issue, certainly from David Cameron and the Conservative Party, but also from the other political parties who will want to make their own cases for how they see the UK’s future in or out of the EU, even if any of them already have articulated a view on whether they think citizens should be able to vote on this matter or not (I’m looking at you, Ed Milliband).

While the politicos in Westminster will have their say – and think about where such people rank in the latest trust barometer from Edelman, published earlier this week – I’d also like to hear what others in public service think. For instance, what do the 100+ bloggers at our embassies around the world think and sense where they are? Especially those in embassies and consulates in EU countries.

And I expect every channel across the social web will play a significant role as not only the conduit for communicating the various points of view everyone has but also stimulating that conversation, facilitating engagement on and offline – the contemporary manifestation of our freedom of speech and how we exercise it.

If you’d like to read the text of David Cameron’s speech, and see the recording of him delivering it, you can do so at the Number 10 website and at YouTube respectively. You can also read the speech (and download a PDF copy) right here in this embedded Scribd document I made.

(As an aside, there’s a great backstory here, about Clare Foges, the woman who is Cameron’s chief speech-writer and who wrote this speech. The Daily Mail has the story which, unfortunately, reads like the rejected script from one of the storylines in Love Actually. But, see though the sickliness of the writing for some insight into the inner workings of Cameron’s close team.)

The Economist this week has a good risk assessment of Cameron’s call, labeling him ‘The gambler.’ And a wicked cover!

It looks like Europe will continue to be a hot topic in the UK for years to come. This time, though, our whingeing, supporting, complaining, championing, disparaging and everything else might actually have some point.

What a terrific communication challenge. And an opportunity to help shape the debate if you join in, whatever your point of view.

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Gun control: where there’s a will there must be a way

In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, on December 14 that saw 20 kids aged six and seven shot to death along with six adults, much talk has focused on re-opening the American debate on gun control.

An image I’ve seen posted by many people on social networking sites like Facebook and Google+ is this one that contrasts the numbers of people killed by handguns in certain countries compared to the United States.


I saw this one in a post by Virgin founder Richard Branson.

The words say this:

Last year handguns killed
48 people in Japan.
8 in Great Britain.
34 in Switzerland.
52 in Canada.
58 in Israel.
21 in Sweden.
42 in West Germany.
10, 728 in the United States.

God Bless America.

There’s no date nor citations of a source or sources for the statistics. Yet the image is popping up all over the social web.

As for a date, there is a strong clue in the image itself with reference to the country ‘West Germany.’ As that country become simply ‘Germany’ after it and East Germany were unified in 1990 following the collapse of communism in 1989, it’s a safe bet to say the image and the statistics are therefore at least 22 years old.

But does that really matter when the point of the image in current use seems to be that of highlighting the shocking chasm between the numbers of deaths brought about by the use of handguns in the US compared to in the other countries mentioned, rather than the actual numbers themselves?

The small wording in the image beneath the stylized handgun suggests it to be the work of Handgun Control Inc., a lobbying organization that evolved in 2001 into the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (the Wikipedia entry has detailed information).

It’s an imaginative image, clearly designed as a printed poster. It makes the powerful point of ‘the US versus the rest.’

All well and good, perhaps. Yet a worrying aspect to me is the ease with which everyone tosses around such imagery and metrics, amplified and repeated by anyone with an internet connection, so that it’s becoming hard to separate fact from fiction, genuine concern versus undisclosed partisanship.

What if the numbers or whatever are just wrong?

A similar picture – and clearly on a far more significant scale – concerns how the mainstream media reported on the identity of the shooter who took those children’s and adults’ lives in Newtown, getting it totally wrong at first, thus seeding the repetition of ‘falsehood reporting’ – unwittingly to be sure – that prompted emotionally-charged but ugly behaviour across the social web including death threats against an individual wrongly identified in the media as the culprit.

Yet I think all of this is simply reflective of the society landscape today.

Verification of fact before sharing your news with others used to be a pillar propping up the foundation of mainstream media authority, integrity and respect. The advent of social media and how anyone can report the news tossed that idea into the long grass in many respects.

There seems to be a sea change in how the mainstream media carries out fact checking, certainly in the US, instead taking part in a race to get the news out there before your competitor – which can mean the blogger down the road or the social networker a continent away who’s keeping an eye on what people are talking about online – whatever they’re saying – not just other mainstream media.

While analysis and debate on the media’s role (and responsibilities) over reporting the Newtown massacre goes on, I truly hope all of this – media reporting, 22-year-old images and statistics, repeated and amplified misinformation, the lot – contributes to not only a genuine debate about guns, society and where it all fits together but also action that would make it hard to imagine another Newtown taking place in America.

This is about far more than purely gun control, embracing as it does the behaviours of individuals and society as a whole.

Observing some of the opinions in my Facebook timeline from American friends, I see quite a bit of talk about the US constitution, the second amendment and the right to bear arms.

Indeed, as I commented in a Twitter discussion on Saturday morning, I get all that.

Yet all I see is what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, not to mention the other shooting horrors of recent years.

Surely there is a will in America that leads to a way to solve this?

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