Founder of Tigercomm, Mike counsels cleantech executives, investors and philanthropists on strategies for meeting their business objectives.
It’s been several months since the debut of Planet of the Humans, the attack on the environmental movement and clean energy backed by left-leaning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. The film has garnered more than 9 million views on YouTube. That’s enough attention to warrant a look at clean energy’s response to better prepare ourselves for a future broadside.
The American Council on Renewable Energy, the American Wind Energy Association and Climate Nexus responded to the film in a very limited fashion, and much of the clean energy industry has been largely silent about it. So despite widespread viewership, there’s been limited response. It seems that only historic circumstances — a pandemic, a recession and social unrest — have saved us from a major impact from the film. This response disparity raises an important question: As clean energy continues taking market share from powerful incumbents, we’ll be contestants in a medieval jousting tournament. Shouldn’t we arm ourselves with better responses, given the certainty of future attacks?
What should we do to prepare for the next one?
1. Be ready to move together — and fast.
To paraphrase classic satirist Jonathan Swift, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In the online era, we can’t stop opponents from launching propaganda-driven attacks. But we can develop our ability to quickly respond. Right now, there is no well-designed, fully funded rapid response capacity that’s dedicated to defending climate change solutions technologies.
That capacity should be developed and:
• Designed by people who’ve succeeded in crisis communications.
• Staffed by people who understand the business of clean energy.
• Funded for the long term, at scale.
• Tasked with sharpening skills through continuous skirmishing with critics.
• Constantly building a network of communicators at companies and allied nonprofits who will pitch in on shared sector defense.
There have been sporadic attempts to build this type of infrastructure over the last 10 years, and I’ve been a witness to most. All have been hobbled by underfunding, petty personalities and poor design by those with little experience in full-contact media work.
2. The ‘don’t give it oxygen’ approach is rationalized conflict aversion.
One of the vexingly durable problems within clean energy advocacy has been conflict aversion, typically justified with legacy communications tactics. I could fill a memoir from the thousands of calls and meetings in which an effective response was killed because someone asserted that responding would “give it more oxygen,” obsessed about their “credibility” or said that the “facts will speak for themselves.” I believe this is conflict aversion masquerading as strategy.
Market disruption is a full-contact sport. The disrupted won’t sit by and let us take market share. Attacks are and will be a fact of life, and our responses must be:
• Fast and continuous.
• Concise and effectively delivered.
• Scaled to match the original attack.
• Effectively framed to win the race to define the issue by shifting the focus of the debate.
To be clear, responding to attacks will typically increase the amount of attention paid to them. But the increase is often slight, and the benefits are significant. It’s much better to deal with a story that got 20% more attention because of a response, but had 80% more advantageous framing.
3. Identify and home in on the attacker’s biggest transgression.
One of the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu once said something like, “Between its beginning and its end, there’s a point where every attack gets weaker. I get everyone into that space.”
Almost all attacks on clean energy have glaring weaknesses in them — major factual errors, conflicted motivations, a track record of dishonesty by the originator or the underhanded manner of the attack. We just need the discipline to pick one such weakness and continuously use it to redefine the debate once it’s initiated by our opponent’s attack.
This is a decades-old practice of political operatives and crisis communicators: In response to an opponent’s aggression, change the subject to a chosen weakness of the attack or the attacker.
4. Continuously work the referees, and pressure the institutions that enable them.
From what I’ve seen over the last 10-plus years, attacks on clean energy have often been started by politically conservative media outlets and then moved to the more centrist national media outlets.
Moore’s film did the same, just from the political left. Regardless, the goal seems to be to spread the attack to other outlets, at which a person or a small group decides to pick up the story. We’ll call them referees. As part of clean energy’s future responses, we need to publicly question those referees by name and hold them to account for repeating misleading attacks. Our rule should be simple: “You spread it, you own it.”
To do that, we’ll need purpose-designed, standing infrastructure. And we’ll need an early consensus from a critical mass of clean energy players and allies that disrupting the viral spread of an attack has to include making the referees uncomfortable.
And this isn’t a “one and done” situation. In order to fetter the referees our attackers rely on, the iterative nature of online media demands that we garner a sufficient volume of criticism, continuity of pressure and number of voices demanding accountability.
With Moore’s film, clean energy was saved by historic circumstance, not preparation. That’s a shame, because the film was ripe for effective pushback.
We can see what’s coming. Our opponents are now working to keep doubts about the reliability of clean energy aloft.
Next time, let’s be ready to exercise more control over our destiny.
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Author: Mike Casey, Forbes Councils Member