The article below was Published May 2011 in Environmental Leader Magazine.
A New Goal for the Renewable Energy Industry: Educating the Public
In a world full of excess – from energy consumption to environmental pollution – it is only natural that companies explore alternative sources of energy. It appears that most people outside of the energy industry view renewable energy as the panacea to saving the world. Yet in reality, the public support of ‘clean’ energy is not as absolute as the industry may hope for. One of the reasons that may cause this gap between theory and practice is the fact that common knowledge of renewable energy production is rather limited. The majority of the public understands the dangers of environmental pollution and, thus, supports any initiatives to prevent or at least minimize it. The problem is that while most people comprehend what renewable energy means in theory, they know very little about the process involved in its production. They fear it as the ‘unknown’, and that stigma can act as a strong motivation to oppose a renewable energy development.
The answer to this problem lies in educating the public. During the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, people were skeptical of many innovations. Yet with time, as they had become familiarized with the new ‘technology’, they began to appreciate the improvements it brought to their lives. The same thing needs to happen within the renewable energy industry. If information about clean energy becomes more accessible, people will probably feel less alarmed around wind farms and biodiesel plants. Luckily, with modern technology and decades of creative advancement in media and public relations, getting the message out is as easy as ever.
When investing in a renewable energy project, any developer should launch an informational campaign that will educate the local community and prevent potential damaging misunderstandings. One of the best ways to achieve that is by employing the new technological phenomenon known as social media. Below are some of the reasons why a social media campaign is a crucial step in acquiring public support.
One of the main advantages of social media is that it provides a two-way channel of communication. Of course, there are many forms of promotion, such as print and television ads, that help you get your message out. However, traditional advertising is often limited when it comes to obtaining the public’s feedback. No matter how much research you do, you can never be sure what exact information your community needs to receive to understand your project. Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets allow your audience to respond, express their opinion, and ask questions. That communication is essential if you want to avoid opposition. You are given the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings people may have about the renewable energy industry and about your project. It also gives you a chance to show that you take pride and caution about the local residents’ opinions and their neighborhoods.
Making the Connection
Unlike most industrial publications, social media allows (and even often requires) you to use simple language that will be accessible to a larger audience. Describing your project, as well as the renewable energy industry in general, in basic terms will ensure a better understanding from your community. In addition, the informal tone will help bridge the gap between you and your audience. Chances are local residents will express less antagonism if they think of you as a ‘friend’ rather than a ‘developer’ or ‘corporation.’
When using social media, the choices of how you convey your message are almost limitless. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, and social media allows you to use that to your advantage. Along with traditional text you can apply photographs, videos, sound clips, animation and more to get your message across to the masses. Imagine how much information you can relay in a five-minute YouTube clip versus a newspaper article. In addition, video gives you an opportunity to humanize your project by showing the speaker’s face, rather than a distant voice of a radio advertisement. Overall, the modern public seems to be more open and have a more positive reaction to messages carried out by digital media rather than ‘old-fashioned’ articles and ads.
Given the fast-paced lifestyle of the modern world, timing is everything. Sometimes, getting the information out quickly makes all the difference. Social media has no waiting period, no printing delays, and no broadcasting limitations. You can deliver your message to the audience in the matter of minutes, if not seconds. You can keep the local residents updated on project progress, legislative changes, scheduled meetings, and anything else that may be relevant to your support/opposition battle. In return, the community will appreciate your thoughtfulness and courtesy of communicating with them.
It has been established decades ago that educating your public is a crucial attribute for a successful outcome of any venture (especially in a young and controversial industry like renewable energy). The question is no longer why, but how. Regardless of whether you approve of social media as a part of our lives, it is a very useful tool when it comes to public relations. In addition to the advantages discussed above, social media is significantly cheaper than traditional advertising, which allows you to focus your finances on other areas that may require extra resources.
Our world may be far from perfect, but we (especially those of us involved in any campaign) should appreciate living in an era with social media and other communication innovations at our disposal. When it comes to facing opposition to your renewable energy project, a social media campaign is a beneficial, and even necessary, weapon to have in your arsenal. Use it to the fullest at an early stage and, perhaps, you will avoid opposition all together.