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Fracking - not for girls?

TedViagraResized.jpgEveryone delivering a geological address to a general audience can expect to get a question about fracking.  I usually answer in two parts: Is it safe? And if safe, is it wise? 

Like driving, fracking can be either safe or unsafe - depending on regulation, workmanship, inspection and enforcement.  The second question is more nuanced.  If the looming energy gap is your main worry, then it is wise; if climate change is your main concern, probably not. 

But PR is a rough game.  Safety concerns are stoked up by ‘green’ lobbyists because what they really fear is that a new source of hydrocarbons might delay the switch to ‘clean’ energy.  Opposition to radwaste repositories employs the same tactic, the real fear being that a disposal problem solved is no longer an effective weapon against nuclear power.

This PR approach – known as ‘shroud-waving’ – frequently becomes desperate.  In October, Friends of the Earth attempted to claim that sand (used in fracking fluids) is carcinogenic, and were publicly ridiculed by, among others, Clive Mitchell (BGS) and Professor Paul Younger (Glasgow University).  But oddly, the biggest gaffe committed in the name of fracking that month came courtesy of its friends. 

In October UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), understandably eager to tackle fracking’s image problem, appointed as its chair Averil Macdonald OBE - ‘one of the UK's leading experts in communicating science to the public’, Emeritus Professor of Science Engagement at Reading University, board member of Women in Science and Engineering, etc. etc.

How unfortunate then that, in seeking to address the statistic that fewer women than men support fracking (31.5% v 58%, according to Nottingham University), Professor MacDonald landed UKOOG in deep PR doo-doo over the apparent sexism of her explanations.  Women, she said, were less well informed about science, less likely (in any case) to be persuaded by facts than ‘gut feeling’, and as mothers, more concerned about children – thus appearing to insult all women, and especially non-mothers (of both sexes).

So, instead of reaching out to females about fracking, UKOOG were roasted alive for reinforcing gender stereotypes.  Their message was lost, the organisation made to look foolish, and any future PR hills they choose to climb made steeper.  As charm offensives go, this was charmless and offensive. 

‘Moral?  Don’t do media relations on the cheap; apparent sexist claptrap is not excused just because a woman utters it; think twice before presenting controversial and easily misinterpreted facts and figures; and then if you feel you must do it, consult a proper PR person qualified by experience.  Who will say ‘don’t’.’

Oh, and ‘handing children loaded guns is a bad idea’.


[email protected] , @TedNield @geoscientistmag