Modern Energy Battles Demand Science-Backed Stakeholder Support

Posted on March 25, 2013
Posted By: Jerry Thompson
With the recent 60 Minutes TV profile of Daniel Day-Lewis, who so powerfully portrayed our most popular US President in the 2012 bio-pic "Lincoln", we continue to examine the emotion and pain of the Civil War. With President Obama's SOTU address, we're reminded that the nation remains essentially at war over the development and delivery of energy. The battles to decide our most economically and environmentally sustainable path forward are being waged in legislative chambers, courtrooms, town halls and countless media channels and editorial pages.

Long before environmental consciousness in the US took a leap forward in 1962 with biologist Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring", business, government and activists struggled to find a balance of interests. Today, the struggle has evolved into complex and sharply contrasted political positions, issues and choices to be navigated, negotiated and litigated. One emerging reality is that, for all the engineering, science and technology that drives energy innovation, effective engagement with stakeholders - good, effective communication - may be the chief enabler of sustainable and profitable operations. Or the ability to operate at all.

At the heart of this communication is reconciling the tension between science-backed facts that should guide decisions, and the powerful emotions fueled by the real and perceived risks and benefits related to security, economic opportunity, human health and natural resources. All this plays out in a world where social media has democratized influence, and where political motives can be unfriendly to facts. The result: a grinding, noisy and costly gridlock that defines debates about almost everything energy.

So, how can communicators help energy companies most effectively work with stakeholders to break through, to achieve enough alignment of interests to move forward on energy solutions, and avoid wasting the time and money being lost battling over turf?

Clearly there is a need to apply the most sophisticated, science-based tools to ensure that decisions on energy policy are being made based on verifiable facts. One such evidence-based method is Mental Models, which have been developed over decades of research by cognitive scientists and behavioral psychologists. The models, which reflect people's tacit webs of belief, provide an in-depth understanding of how people perceive and understand the risks and benefits associated with a proposition, problem, opportunity or product - and what will drive their behavior choices. The models, which can inform communication content and strategy choices for stakeholder engagement -- can more closely align the communication function in an energy firm with the precision engineering and standards-driven cultures that are common to the industry.

Mental models aren't new - some leading energy companies have used them to drive risk management and communication efforts, and some public health agencies are specifically requesting their use in RFPs. The US Army Corps of Engineers is building decision models using the method, and the US FDA has published guidance for risk communications that features Mental Models prominently

What natural resources and technologies will we develop, and how, to provide the energy security, affordability, sustainability and economic opportunity we all need to maximize our quality of life? Over time we'll find out, but for energy communicators a more urgent question is: which science-based tools will help us best understand stakeholder needs regarding the risks and benefits of energy related choices?
Authored By:
Jerry leads Ketchum Energy, a global network of specialists serving leading corporations in oil and gas, utilities/power generation/transmission, renewable wind and solar, alternative energy/fuels, smart grid and clean tech. Jerry’s diverse career experiences enable him to provide counsel across a range of industries and organizations; he is a trusted adviser for both corporate communications and brand marketing assignments.

Jerry has worked for numerous leading energy clients on environmental, marketing

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March, 25 2013

Ferdinand E. Banks says

Yes and no. I have all the answers I need about energy, but the friends and neighbors don't want answers - they want their ´prejudices verified. The great world of energy is filled with lies and misunderstandings, and these are becoming more bizarre. For instance, here in Sweden the top energy executive was against nuclear energy - although nucear and hydro gave Sweden an economy that was envied by most of the civilized world - and that ignoramus is now in Japan as the research head of some sort of energy-environment foundation. Incidentally, Mr Kåberger is a PhD in technical physics.

And it hasn't been much better in the US. I can hardly imagine an energy boss who was more incompetent than the good Dr. Chu.

March, 25 2013

Jerry Watson says

I prefer the Jedi mind trick myself; unfortunately both are more effective on the weak minded. Call it what you will but it still a tool of manipulation with the point being to have the presenters view accepted as the fact of the matter with little if any regard to the fact of the matter. The truth be dammed.

Mental Models do need to be understood so one can guard against being misinformed and manipulated by them. We have a massively different view of Mental Models, I find it hard to call it a good thing. However, Joseph Goebbels would be proud of the new state of the art. The old master is an armature by today’s standard, and who really cares about the truth anyway.

March, 25 2013

Len Gould says

My truth is better than your truth (sung in the voice of a playground ditty).

March, 26 2013

Ferdinand E. Banks says

A short observation Jerry. You are absolutely and totally correct when you call Goebbels an amateur by today's standard. Worse than that though is the greed of the rich and the stupidity of the highly educated.

March, 28 2013

Jerry Thompson says

Frist, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment... Hmmm, comments struck a cynical riff on Mental Models. While I can appreciate that POV given all that passes for news or fact around energy, I prefer to look at this Mental Models tool as one that can help an organization and its stakeholders. Where the goal is to achieve as much alignment as possible with the interests of stakeholders (and if I may join the cynicism parade -- there are those who don't care about that), Mental Models will help the organization understand the needs of those whose "permission" it needs to operate profitably. Or, as I noted in the blog -- to operate at all. The ability to create maximum sustainable value -- whether it's for shareholders or employees -- depends on the enterprise and its leadership taking this approach.

April, 02 2013

Fred Linn says

A policy of manipulation and control for narrow bandwidths of personal gain can backfire.

"King Coal" persued such a policy for over a century.

Until the rug got pulled out from under them.

Nobody is mourning the fall of "Old King Coal".

April, 02 2013

bill payne says

Feeding the Media Beast: An Easy Recipe for Great Publicity author Mark Mathis

phoned this morning.

Mathis iwrote

Where do journalists come from? They are manufactured in America's universities in a liberal arts curriculum.

Converation addressed liberal arts 'educated', imo, energy parasiites.

Conversation lasted more than one hour, two minutes and 26.43 seconds. :)

April, 02 2013

bill payne says

Mathis audio on bombing Iran.

April, 03 2013

bill payne says

Who is paying Mark Marthis for his statements on Iran nuclear bomb developemnt?

Biz, guys.

This the way the liberal arts 'educated' make their money.

Drought in New Mexico field trip Albuquerque-Las Cruces Saturday March 30/Sunday 31, 2013

Us libertal art 'educated' understand.

Whitman College class of 1959 ... but a math major. And a 1964 Purdue U PhD grad too.

As well as visiting University of Illinois at Assoicate prof in Computer Scince in 1972/73.

April, 06 2013

Malcolm Rawlingson says


This is a very thought provoking article. I enjoyed reading it. There are a couple of observations I would like to make. Firstly it would be very nice if decisions were made based on science - as I think they should be. Unfortunately in my experience decisions are rarely - if ever - based on science. Secondly we are very often not quite sure what the "science" actually is since what we assume is correct is sometimes proven quite incorrect over time. There are so many cases where the "science" that was adamantly defended by knowledgeable persons is proven completely wrong.

Rather than base our decisions on imperfect science it is always better to base them on provable facts. We know, for example, that producing nuclear energy does not burn oxygen and does not directly produce carbon dioxide. Plus we also know that burning fossil fuels does burn oxygen and does produce carbon dioxide. It is also a less well known but very provable fact that coal burning plants emit MORE radioactivity than nuclear plants due to the vast tonnages of coal that must be consumed. So based on these scientific facts the case for nuclear is that it is far less damaging to the environment than any other power source. Exactly the opposite of the view portrayed by almost every media outlet.

Unfortunately in the world of energy where there are enormous fortunes at stake every opportunity is taken to distort and misrepresent information as "scientific fact" when it is nothing of the sort.

While I would agree that this is the best basis on which to base our energy decisions the mental maps we use are more geared to how much money can be made from one technology than another and which lobby group has the most influence over the political - and largely corrupt - decision makers in our society.


April, 10 2013

Jerry Thompson says

Malcolm - thank you for a thoughtful post -- it brought to mind a couple of life's maxims (lies, damn lies and stats; and the question: whose facts are they?)

The entire specter of facts vs. emotion, and what gets exploited for what purpose, is always a rich discussion. The rational/not nature of human behavior is another. With all that said, and given the the opportunity for people and corporations to advocate for their positions, I like the idea of using a methodology having some five decades of research behind it.

You can make the case that communicators/advocates are applying social science to their decisions about what to comunicate, and how/how often, etc. in order to be effective advocates for their position (and achieve some desired behavior from constituents -- buy this, vote for that, donate to the other...). If there is a more precise tool to support those judgments and decisions (and I believe Mental Models removes uncertainty that can come with ever more volumes of available data from which to decide) I ask myself "why not use that method?"

April, 10 2013

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Jerry, I could not agree with you more but the likelihood of using such models is about zero. The reason is that people do not want rational thought applied to problems - especially when they stand to gain a buck or two. One that immediately springs to mind is the use of seat belts. Mountains of research showed that an unrestrained person in a car becomes a missile when the car stops and the person does not. Despite all of that scientific fully provable and defendable knowledge it took government legislation to force people to use them and for manufacturers to put them in all cars. Applying the mental map to the problem would have shown the obvious benefit.

Same with smoking. Tens of millions dead because the mental map process was not applied. Why - money and power and influence.

I would be delighted to see governments and politicians apply this methodology to the problems of today...indeed I think engineers and scientists actually do that. But as you have no doubt observed not many engineers or scientists make it to positions of power. The decision makers are lawyers, accountants and people with (for want of a better phrase) the gift of the gab.

These are the very people who do not want to use the logical approach you describe to resolve the worlds problems. If they did their power would evaporate...and we cannot have that now can we.

Unfortunately for all of us this world is ruled by manipulators, swindlers and political opportunists and that is why many of the worlds pressing problems are not resolved. Everyone is out to distort science to fit their agenda. The last thing these people want it to apply logic - they would be out of business.


April, 12 2013

Ferdinand E. Banks says

As usual Malcolm, you know what is happening in this old world of ours, but let me tell everybody what is strange now. When I started studying engineering, most people could hardly add and subtract. I could add and subtract, but I didn't know enough algebra to keep from failing the first course twice.

Now every Tom, Dick and Harriet know something about math and science, thanks to the internet and TV. What this means is that they are more receptive than ever to the liars and scammers. You should have seen the turmoil in the room when I gave a lecture praising nuclear in Singapore. I heard things about nuclear and renewables that day that belonged in a nuttery.

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