Science finally proves just how badly energy CEOs (and boosters) suck at politics, communications

Science-wordsEmotional connection is the new norm, energy industry’s old facts and science approach no longer connects with stakeholders

If the Dilbert comic strip taught us anything, it’s that engineers are socially awkward and terrible communicators. Now science has confirmed what Scott Adams has always known. And the new evidence has important implications for energy developments.

Prof. Lianne Lefsrud, University of Alberta.

Prof. Lianne Lefsrud, assistant professor, Engineering Safety and Risk Management, University of Alberta.

In an Aug. 9 column, I criticized oil and gas boosters, those folks who think that if they just yell louder about energy “facts” that they will win over voters and increase support for the Alberta oil sands, American shale production, fracking, pipelines or any other energy infrastructure project.

My basic argument is that boosters alienate potential supporters. If you think of the problem in political terms, boosters may rally the base, but they do little to connect with and persuade potential independents in the middle.

Prof. Lianne Lefrsud agrees with that assessment.

The University of Alberta academic and a team of researchers have developed an analytical model based on an algorithm that examines social media and online posts.

“We look at words people choose to talk about different resource industries and then we measure the emotionality, look at how negative or positive certain words are and what that says about the industry,” she said in an interview.

For instance, “tar sands” is a much  more pejorative term than “oil sands.” Eco-activists always refer to northern Alberta bitumen extraction as the tar sands, while industry and boosters prefer oil sands.

“What’s very interesting is that the negativity of tar sands is actually spilling over now and making oil sands more negative now, too,” says Lefsrud.

The same is true for words associated with pipelines. “Spills,” for example, is a “highly negative word,” even more so than “cancer” or “explosion.”

That environmentalists are winning the word war is important because American and Canadian political culture has shifted significantly over the past decade, especially with respect to public perception of the oil and gas industry, says Lefsrud.

In the past, energy discussions were framed around facts, science, data, and logical arguments – “cognitive legitimacy,” in Lefsrud’s terms. “If we understand something, if we’re aware of it, we’re familiar with it, we’re more likely to trust it,” she said.

Oil and gas executives and government regulators think in terms of cognitive legitimacy. And why wouldn’t they? That’s the way the system worked for many decades. Corporations and government were accorded high status by voters and stakeholders, who trusted them to make the right decision on their behalf.

Over the past decade, all that has changed.

Normative legitimacy now dominates. Canadians and Americans are asking different questions of energy projects. Is it the right thing to do? What’s the moral basis for this decision? Should we be doing this?

Or, more importantly, how do we feel about this decision?

Emotional connection is a key feature of normative legitimacy, says Lefsrud. Emotional connection is why Canadian voters support Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government more today than they did 10 months after the ballot box. Emotional connection is why Donald Trump is supported by Americans angry at the current state national politics, voters who feel left out and excluded.

Not surprisingly, the engineers, accountants, and lawyers who run American and Canadian energy companies still mostly think in terms of cognitive legitimacy. Industry is in survival mode instead of change mode, even as the world around them changes rapidly and environmental groups long ago mastered the new politics of normative legitimacy.

“It’s like an adoption S-curve and we’re on the early, steep end,” says Lefsrud. “Some real innovators and leaders in the energy industry are picking it up, but most folks are laggards.”

Being behind the curve carries risk for executives. Risk beyond the ones they normally worry about, like technical and financial risk.

“Energy managers need to understand there are emotional aspects associated with their projects. The emotionality of stakeholders has financial consequences because projects aren’t getting built due to these non-technical risks,” said Lefsrud.

Lefsrud hopes that her computational model and analytics approach to the politics of energy projects will convince industry it has to change the way it communicates, its political strategies and style.

Tomorrow’s column will grapple with the thorny issue of new political and communications strategies for the North American energy industry that take advantage of Lefsrud’s insights.

I’ve interviewed communications consultant Doug Lacombe about who pipeline operators and oil and gas companies should be talking to, and why boosters are the worst people to do the talking.

Ph: 432-978-5096 Website:

Ph: 432-978-5096 Website:

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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