Gas industry advertising shifts toward issues

08 07, 2012 by Associated Press

Black-and-white images show steelworkers inside a mill. They walk outside and hand a short section of pipe to a natural gas crew, shown in full color.

“Drilling is just the beginning,” says the new Range Resources Corp. TV ad that ties Western Pennsylvania’s steel history to the gas drilling industry that’s taken hold here in recent years.

The “baton” handoff ad shot with local workers at U.S. Steel Corp.’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock runs during NBC’s Olympics broadcasts across most of Pennsylvania. It’s the kickoff for Range’s new campaign, and a sign the industry is ramping up its messages to the public in higher-profile media slots.

Along with Range’s ads and Consol Energy Inc.’s recent “America’s Energy Starts Here” campaign promoting natural gas and coal, national trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the three-year-old America’s Natural Gas Alliance are buying more air time, billboard and print spaces in relevant markets and using social media to make their points, said Thomas Hoffman, an Upper St. Clair energy communications expert.

“There is a lot of messaging out there, and my guess is it’s motivated in part by some of the controversy that surrounds fracking,” he said, referring to the process of fracturing shale underground to free pockets of natural gas.

“The industry now is trying to address the environmental issues. That’s different from the beginning, where they were talking more about jobs” and the benefits of leasing land for drilling sites, said Hoffman, who has his own firm, Carbon Communications Consultants.

Fort Worth-based Range, with a regional headquarters in Cecil, said its latest ads by agency Big Picture Communications Inc. of Mt. Lebanon convey its vision for what natural gas could bring to the region.

Range has scheduled an event to premier its new campaign this Thursday.

“Coal and steel defined the region, on their spinoff benefits,” Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said, and natural gas could do the same through increased use as a feedstock for petrochemicals plants, for instance.

The Summer Olympics provided an ideal time to start a campaign, before the public is inundated with election ads this fall, he said.

Range’s baton ad and a spot with a patriotic theme are airing frequently now. Two others — one focused on the region’s long manufacturing lull, and opportunity for change, and another with a message on energy independence — will follow. Pitzarella declined to specify what Range is spending on advertising.

Cecil-based Consol isn’t running ads now, but is considering options for 2013, including doing more promotions in the growing Utica shale regions of Ohio, spokeswoman Lynn Seay said.

Surveys show familiarity with Consol’s business has increased, although, “Our name is on the side of the Penguins arena, so the results were skewed a little,” she said.

The coal and natural gas producer wasn’t always a household name. Before its first “America’s On Switch” ads six years ago, awareness of Consol in the region was around 20 percent, said Scott Morgan, president of advertising agency Brunner, but the Consol wanted to build its image in part to attract talented engineers and other workers.

Now, Consol is as well-known in the region as Wal-Mart and perception of the company is positive, Morgan said, adding that can affect Wall Street’s view.

Energy companies often spend millions on image advertising, Morgan said, adding some market reports show API, Chevron and Range spent close to $1 million combined on TV advertising in the region through June this year.

Energy companies have become more savvy in pointing out the benefits of their operations to communities and the national economy, said Brian Bronaugh, president of the Mullen agency, which has no gas producers as clients.

Also, “drilling for natural gas is a big, expensive job” and companies have to address problems when things go wrong. Total spent for a major, multifaceted ad campaign can run from $8 million to $12 million, he said.

Drillers combine advertising with public relations, community outreach through meetings and other efforts to “stay on the good side of the consumer,” said Audrey Guskey, associate professor of marketing at Duquesne University.

The industry not only is shaping its public image, but ads often are meant to minimize political oversight, said Virginia Gerde, associate professor of management and ethics at Duquesne. Think of the alcohol industry’s “drink responsibly” ads or McDonald’s highlight on healthy foods, she said.

Ads that stress drilling can be done without long-lasting effects to water supplies or the terrain seem to prompt a wait-and-see reaction here, Gerde said. “What I am hearing from people is, ‘Show me in five years that it can be done safely,’” she said.

The campaigns signal the companies make enough in profits to put millions of dollars into advertising, “which also makes people think twice,” Gerde said.

Consumers should look at the drilling industry’s more-frequent ads with a skeptical eye, as they should with any commercial message, said Jeanne Clark of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a Harrisburg-based environmental advocacy organization.

“Read the news and look at the science,” she said. “We know that having drilling in your community isn’t all good. It’s a major industrial operation.” About 70 percent of residents who took part in the recent Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research and the Pittsburgh Today research organization said Marcellus drilling was at least a moderate economic opportunity. Fewer respondents, 55 percent, said it poses at least some environmental threat.

Pitzarella said that survey and ones with similar results are a sign that consumers are learning more about the industry, and that time is showing the drilling and fracking process poses few long-term effects. It doesn’t mean ads are swaying opinions.

“People would reject a campaign that tried to boil down health and environmental safety into sound bites,” he said.