The ongoing political struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline deserves the attention of every corporate director—for reasons that go well beyond both oil and the environment.
Consider what a formidable presence the oil industry has long maintained in Washington, D.C. It deploys an army of lobbyists and near-limitless resources. It has access and influence. Yet the battle over Keystone XL, the TransCanada pipeline intended to transport 800,000 barrels of oil daily from Alberta to refineries in Texas, confirms that such traditional exercise of power may not necessarily avail. Formerly disparate, disorganized adversaries have found the tools to trump the advantages that the inside track traditionally provided.The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig put it succinctly: “David is getting new slingshots.” Zweig was referring specifically to activist investors, but his observation applies equally to sundry other activists and NGOs that—as the Keystone fracas emphatically underscores—now mount digital and social media campaigns that are at least as compelling to legislators as any time-honored inside-the-Beltway politicking.
As of this writing, we don’t know if the oil industry might eventually prevail on the Keystone issue. Yet strategists who shape corporate public affairs are well advised, whatever happens, to take a closer look at how the activists have successfully aroused anti–Keystone sentiment.
First, there is that most basic tool of Internet combat: search engine optimization, or SEO. On the Keystone issue, the activists have thus far dominated the search engines that serve as informational portals for so many millions of voters.
A February 15 Google search for the term “Keystone XL pipeline” tells the story. Of the 14 links returned on the all-important first page of results, only one— a post by the American Enterprise Institute— is supportive of the project. Surprisingly, we did not find the American Petroleum Institute (API) represented on this key page at that important juncture.
Seven—half the links—were from groups spearheading the opposition. (The rest were more or less neutral.) At a crucial moment in the Senate debate, Keystone advocates simply ceded control of the narrative. The voters who drive the legislators didn’t even need to open the Google links. Just by scanning those links they’d mainly see language from groups like the National Wildlife Federation vividly conveying threats to fragile ecosystems. Or they’d see an equally conspicuous prediction that Keystone could cause another BP-type spill.
Not surprisingly, the NGOs have shrewdly utilized social media as well, in order to ensure the viral dissemination of their messages. As such, their campaign is all about action, not just opinion. According to an National Resources Defense Council blog, for example, 800,000 email messages in opposition to the pipeline had been sent to members of Congress. What has the oil industry done to counter the onslaught at a point in time when the president and Democratic legislators may still be vulnerable on the jobs issue, and when audiences such as organized labor could still be won over by the argument that Keystone means more jobs?
API, through a coalition called Energy Tomorrow, is running Google AdWords campaigns that link to a blog post titled “Mr. President, What Are You Thinking?” The message may or may not be credible and powerful. But it offers no call to action— whereas, by contrast, the NGO’s grassroots campaign is all about action.
Keystone is just the latest compelling example of how the universe has changed even for—or, rather, especially for—some of its most powerful denizens. As the Internet democratizes the public affairs debate, companies need to be continually learning the new rules of engagement.
Richard S. Levick, Esq. is president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications and the co-author of three books including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis. He is a regular commentator in broadcast, print and on the most widely read business blogs. Follow him on Twitter @richardlevick.