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Over the last couple of weeks I have been watching the protests in the UK at Balcombe. The protest group “No dash for gas” and an assortment of others are protesting against Cuadrillia’s rig which is carrying out frack test drilling. This response to ‘fracking’ and its’ dangers, (or not) seem to be polarized and passions on the subject are strong!

According to the Financial times “Attitudes are hardening, as the two sides dig in….

On one side is David Cameron, the Prime Minister, who says exploiting the UK’s shale gas reserves will drive down energy bills and make Britain more competitive.  On the other side are the environmentalists who say fracking poisons water supplies, pollutes the atmosphere and triggers earthquakes.

The problem is –  there is no middle ground any more.

One of the issues which seems to have got lost in all of this is, the science behind the debate. There is a classic video which is meant to show the dangers of fracking – A man lighting gas coming out of his water tap!  This is meant to prove that fracked gas can get into water aquifers. The gas is in fact coal gas and has nothing to do with fracking. They also say that fracking is supposed to cause earthquakes. My understanding is that yes it does, but these are very minor. It’s worth noting that coal mining causes a lot more earthquakes which can be stronger in scale.

There are a number of facts and when you look at the evidence, they are not as conclusive as either side would have you believe. The protesters are doing ‘anything’ to prove that fracking is bad, and believe that the government and those in the industries who will stand to benefit from fracking are trying to allay the fears associated with the process, by saying the process is safe. It is hard unless you take some time to study and consider the argument, not to believe that it is a bad idea and decide against it.

For us business continuity people, the argument about the pros and cons of fracking is interesting from a crisis communications point of view.

Cuadrillia – when they knew their drilling site was going to be targeted by protestors, I suspect, they got their crisis management team together to manage the potential incident. You can see from their website that they have provided lots of information about fracking and the safety precautions to protect the environment. The environmental precautions and the methodologies followed by the company, seem to me to be reasonable but this argument seems to have moved on from rational argument to emotional argument. The protestors seem to be winning the emotional argument by raising the issue nationally that fracking is bad.

The fear for the government and the fracking companies is that if local voters turn against fracking, their local politicians may refuse planning permission and stop the drilling.

So, what can we learn?

1. Even when science and lots of evidence from the USA say a process is safe, if you lose the emotional argument, then your cause can be lost. It does not matter how hard you use all the methodologies at your disposal to convince the public.  If your organisation is going to be involved in a controversial process or project, from day one of starting the project you have to try and win the emotional argument.  Once the protesters are massing outside your gates or project it is too late to change opinion.

2. One of the companies protestors have targeted Cuadrillia’s PR company, Bell Pottinger. A number of protesters are super-gluing themselves to their central London office. There is nothing about their protests on their website – this is not good PR!

Protestors in the past have targeted  suppliers of controversial companies if they haven’t been able to get at the targeted company. This was especially true of the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences who experiment on animals. Protestors targeted most of their suppliers, even down to their banks. They were successful in getting suppliers to cease the supply of their services to the company.

Do you know whether your company supplies a controversial company and therefore could be targeted by protestors?

3. I am not sure whether we as business continuity people have any say over it,  but… I think using your company name in an incident counts and can set the tone of an incident.

Is it my imagination or does the name of the company at the centre of the protest Cuadrillia just sound sinister?

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