Can you get backing for fracking? Article icon


From high-speed trains to fracking for oil and gas, Britain's infrastructure is in sharp focus socially, environmentally and as an upcoming General Election issue.

The task is to win the support of politicians and communities to secure planning approval and fend off professionally-mobilised lobbying by green groups and other campaigners.

But, almost from the off, High Speed 2 has had to cope with incessant headlines about budget overruns, while anti-fracking activists put the sleepy Sussex village of Balcombe on prime-time television.

The noise caused led to exploratory drilling by oil group Cuadrilla being disrupted.

But it also left an imprint on the world of PR as activists glued their hands to the windows of the London offices of Cuadrilla's financial PR advisers Bell Pottinger.

So how do in-house and agency communicators set about winning the hearts and minds of communities that may face major upheaval, including possible rehousing, from landmark infrastructure projects?

How do they go about changing public opinion, countering organised opposition?

And how can they overcome perceived or genuine bias in the media on the subject?

The easy answer has to be that each project is distinctive and needs handling in different ways, but there are some commonalities in approach.

Paul Chapman, interim director of communications for HS2, says: 'The first thing that has to be understood is how the landscape for major infrastructure projects has changed.

'The rules governing consultation processes nowadays mean the amount of information that's viewed as material and has to be disclosed by the applicant has increased greatly, and is markedly different to what has to be disclosed by opponents of a project.

'The problem is that the applicant can end up disclosing information that can be used against it by opponents who don't have to do the same. It makes everything much more difficult. You're effectively always starting one step behind and if you're not careful you end up chasing that rather than explaining what the benefits of the project would be.'

There are other challenges too. HS2 has been criticised heavily for its expense, with its budget being increased to the current estimate of £42 billion.

'There are large technical challenges with these long-term infrastructure projects and they inevitably end up being innately political,' says Chapman.

'People just cannot associate with such large figures. They think of something costing £5 billion and can't really fathom what it means. So, when you have a budget of £42 billion, nobody has the faintest clue what that means.'

Patrick O'Keefe, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at CH2M Hill, a Colorado-based infrastructure consultancy that has been involved in key UK projects, including the London Olympics and HS2, believes management and communicators have to be proactive on budget overruns.

He says: 'One of the things I think the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) did really well was to clarify the budget right from the start.

'The stories still ran but LOCOG always had a robust defence and was able to explain the exact situation and reasons for it.

'You have to carry along your constituencies when undertaking long-term projects. You can't just assume the benefits will automatically be understood.'

Chapman believes the main thrust of HS2's campaigning has to be about establishing a public face for the project and making it accessible and understood.

Surveys undertaken by HS2 last month showed 70 per cent of respondents believe that the project will create jobs and be good for the UK economy.

Despite this, however, the survey showed only 30 per cent of UK citizens believe that HS2 will benefit them directly.

Chapman says the campaign's aim is therefore focused on moving this dial by making sure people understand the benefits, in terms of shorter journeys and better connections that the scheme will bring, affecting them or someone they know.

Not everyone is convinced. 'I believe HS2 has marketed itself completely the wrong way,' says one agency PR man. 'People in London don't really care about getting to Birmingham 20 minutes sooner.

'HS2 should be majoring on the enhancement it will provide to the UK's rail capacity. People don't like being on crowded trains in rush hour. They really care about that but HS2 is still banging on about reduced journey times.'

HS2's proactive approach in getting out and actively seeking to engage with its communities is also the approach that's been taken in Scarborough, by Sirius Minerals.

The company, listed on the Alternative Investment Market, wants to build a potash mine inside the North Yorkshire National Park where it says it has discovered the world's largest resources of a certain type of potash, a mineral in much demand as fertiliser to increase world agricultural production at a time of rising populations.

Gareth Edmunds, Sirius Minerals' corporate affairs director, says its campaign for planning approval has been helped by the fact that a potash plant managed by rival Boulby has been operating near Middlesbrough for more than 40 years.

Sirius has gone out on the front foot, attending more than 100 parish council meetings as well as engaging with local farmers and landowners. It is also working with local colleges to develop some of the skills that will be needed by the project.

Ben Copithorne, a director of Sirius's corporate communications agency Camargue and 15-year veteran of infrastructure PR campaigns for the likes of Crossrail and the new London Gateway Port at Thurrock, adds that a key strategy is to try to personalise communications.

He says that having a vocal, likeable, considerate and accessible face to articulate arguments, mitigate criticism and explain benefits can be a huge boon when faced with clever David versus Goliath positioning that represents a particular resident, for example, as a powerless pawn fighting against a mighty corporation.

Elsewhere in UK infrastructure PR, most communicators cite a three-pronged strategy of engagement, rebuttal of false or exaggerated criticism and communication of the economic benefits to the UK.

Ann-Marie Wilkinson is head of communications at IGas Energy, which has licences to explore for shale gas in North-West England between Manchester and Liverpool.

She says that, as a producer of 3,000 barrels a day of oil at 105 UK sites mostly in the Weald Basin in Hampshire and West Sussex, Lincolnshire and the North-West, IGas is able to defray some of the concerns by taking politicians, journalists and residents to see existing sites.

The company also holds public meetings, has delivered leaflets to 1,600 homes and liaises with community groups and varied local interests.

The neighbours it must get on with are more diverse than might be expected.

One of its sites is next to a RSPB bird reserve, another is in an area of outstanding natural beauty while a third is in the South Downs National Park.

Wilkinson insists no effort is being spared, even though the IGas communications office consists of only herself and a half-time marketeer.

'We already have licences to explore for gas but need planning permission for fracking,' she says, adding that two applications may be put in next year.

'Engagement is vital for that but we also need it as part of our social licence to operate from our communities.'

Edmunds agrees. 'In infrastructure projects everyone is always terribly concerned about the security inside the fence,' he says. 'But you have to go outside the fence when communicating and really engage with the areas you are impacting.'

Rebuttal, however, can seem like a losing battle, according to Jason Nisse, partner at financial PR agency Newgate Communications.

He acts for the UK Onshore Operation Group, a trade association representing UK onshore gas and oil companies, and says the task involves a recognition that communicators will, to some extent, always be on the back foot.

'People call it fracking when the big issues that we deal with have very little to do with that,' he explains.

'But once something is given a name like fracking, it gains redolence and becomes part of common parlance. However fast and smart we are, we usually start one-nil down.'

Nisse says the main myths about fracking are that it causes earthquakes and water contamination, with the tremors resulting from Cuadrilla's exploratory fracking in Fylde, near Blackpool, and an infamous US documentary featuring gas coming out of a water tap being lit up by a match being used to back up apparently damning arguments.

In fact, insists Nisse, the Fylde tremors were minor, and future incidences would be limited by new UK law that means work now has to stop the moment there are such tremors.

The alleged gas in the water supply, meanwhile, came from US fields with a high concentration of methane, which is not found at such levels in the UK.

'That's not going to happen in Britain,' states Nisse. 'There's a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there and it is irritating that we don't always get a right of reply.

'If we say something, a media outlet may well go to the green campaigner for a balancing comment but it doesn't always happen the other way around. The Greens are coming from one side of the fence. It's like asking a fan from the North Bank at Arsenal to give a balanced view about Spurs. A lot of the time, it's not going to happen.'

Despite that, Nisse doesn't feel that media bias is a problem, saying that critical channels such as the BBC and The Guardian are balanced by strong support for fracking by the likes of The Daily Mail.

Another key element, say communicators, is getting out the message about the benefits of infrastructure projects, not in narrow terms about the operator's profits but in terms of the advantages they bring to the UK as a whole.

For fracking, this can tap into not only concerns about job opportunities in the North-West but wider national worries about security of energy supply as North Sea gas dwindles.

Sirius meanwhile envisages creating 1,000 new direct jobs and another 3,000 indirectly in an area of high unemployment.

Edmunds explains: 'The biggest focus is to provide information because you cannot allow an information vacuum. You have to be proactive and make sure that everyone understands.'

Chapman at HS2 agrees. 'If there's an information vacuum, people will just make things up,' he says. 'You definitely don't want that.'

Bobby Morse, senior partner at financial public relations company Buchanan, acts for Gabriel Resources, a Canada-listed company seeking to develop a site in Transylvania, Romania, as Europe's biggest gold mine.

Three entire villages containing historic churches will be demolished, while 120 families are being relocated. The project is promising to create 800 direct and 4,000 indirect jobs but has faced considerable opposition from environmentalists worried about damage to Transylvanian nature and culture.

Morse says Gabriel has always taken the view that the media need to understand both sides of the story, so has made a point of ensuring that international media visitors to the company's site get to meet opponents of the project.

'Our industry is based upon communicating effectively the merits of an investment case,' he says.

'For investors, it is essential for them to know the facts prior to making an investment decision.

'This is even more true for large infrastructure projects which have a long-term investment horizon and impact.

'This is why we believe that open debates are key in order to marshall all arguments in as transparent a manner as possible so the right long-term decisions are made.

'It's important for all voices to be heard, including those who oppose some of these projects, to maximise the benefits these projects can bring.'

That's not necessarily an approach that will resonate with all PR people. Communicating a major infrastructure project has just got even harder.