Social Vs. The Washington Old-Boy Network: A Case Study Of The Keystone XL Pipeline

After high-profile defeats, opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are leveraging them into outreach and engagement on social networks. Can social-media savvy neutralize the lobbying prowess of the oil and gas industry?

In his recent, second inaugural address, President Obama threw down the gauntlet in defense of core Democratic ideals. He spoke of increased economic fairness, an expansion of civil rights, and a renewed commitment to environmental concerns. Of the latter, he said that a failure to address climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”

Oh gosh, and things were going so well for the Keystone XL pipeline!

By any measure, the month leading up to the inauguration was a success for TransCanada’s efforts to win approval of the controversial oil and gas pipeline that would run from Canada’s Tar Sands region to the Gulf of Mexico. In late December, it was reported that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stepped down over her belief that the Obama administration was poised to give Keystone the green light. And in early January, Keystone won a major victory when Nebraska regulators reported that a revised route for the pipeline would avoid a number of environmentally sensitive areas, areas cited by the Obama administration when it blocked the project last year.

That report cleared the way for Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman to affix his official seal of approval just this week. Now, the ball is back in the president’s court. But where there was once quiet confidence in White House support for the pipeline, the President’s inaugural remarks have raised doubts. Interests on both sides know that his decision will likely impact the direction of U.S. energy policy for years to come. Unfortunately for Keystone, the political base the president sought to appease in his address resides on the other side of the issue, and it is transforming this debate into a referendum on whether he is willing to back his rhetoric with action.

While national political attention was dominated by the fiscal cliff and a new Congress, environmental activists continued gearing up for what they believe to be the fight of the century. Rather than lick their wounds after the high-profile defeats of the last month, they leveraged them into outreach and engagement opportunities that are swelling their ranks.

Likes on the “Stop the Keystone Pipeline” Facebook page have grown to four times the number on the “Support the Keystone Pipeline Page.” YouTube is now teeming with videos expressing personal and emotional appeals against the pipeline. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) now owns the top result for a Google search on “Keystone Pipeline, Nebraska.” The National Wildlife Federation claims the top spot for searches on “Keystone Pipeline, Danger.” A search for “Tar Sands” returns no fewer than five first-page results maintained by pipeline opposition groups. All the while, activists are leveraging relationships with high-profile bloggers to further sway public opinion and demonstrate compelling third-party support.

As it has so many times in the past, the activist community is asserting its digital dominance. All of that online activity is translating into grassroots action. Protests are being carried out across the country. Petitions are being delivered to the White House in droves. And to keep the momentum building, 18 top climate scientists recently penned a letter to the president in strong opposition to the pipeline, writing that “the administration would be actively supporting and encouraging the growth of an industry which has demonstrably serious effects on climate.”

One can’t help but conclude that the recent activist blitz is at least partly responsible for the apparent policy reversal articulated in the president’s inaugural remarks. But at the same time, importantly, it is also driving a shift in strategy on the other side.

Traditionally, the energy industry has relied heavily on lobbying and inside-the-beltway advocacy to achieve its public policy goals. To date, the Keystone debate has largely been no different. But with grassroots social networks giving the old-boy network a real run for its money, TransCanada and the other companies banking on the pipeline’s approval are starting to recognize the digital space as the primary theatre of battle. As such, they are taking steps to level the playing field.

On Twitter, for instance, the pipeline’s supporters are dominating conversations on the hashtag #Keystone. The industry has taken to YouTube to disseminate powerful messages about safety, jobs, and the need to reduce American reliance on foreign oil. It is even catching up in the area of search engine optimization (SEO), with TransCanada controlling key positions for searches such as “Keystone Pipeline Safety.”

These digital inroads represent a good start and a great deal of progress when one considers industry’s longstanding inability to keep up with digital activism. But as the President weighs his decision in the coming months, these efforts will surely be drowned out by a flood of viral activist commentary unless they are taken to the next level.

In the context of SEO, the industry can’t just control results for searches on positive terms such as “pipeline safety” or “Keystone jobs.” It needs to identify the negative terms associated with the pipeline, such as “Keystone Pipeline danger” and “environmental impact,” to ensure that adversaries’ messages don’t run unopposed.

It needs to leverage upcoming events, such as the battle to confirm John Kerry as the next Secretary of State (and thus, an authority on Keystone’s fate), to drive home its messages and build a social media following that can spring into action and demonstrate a tangible show of force. It needs to identify allies among the influential bloggers and online journalists who now overwhelmingly support the activist position and feed its ranks with every post published.

Supporters of the Keystone pipeline might have seen their lobbying prowess neutralized in the online space, but a more valuable advantage is still up for grabs if the oil and gas industry embraces the ways that technology has now fundamentally altered the art of public affairs. In the age of social and digital media, political battles aren’t won behind closed doors in Washington. They are decided on an open public stage--one Facebook friend, Twitter follower, and YouTube subscriber at a time.

--Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters, from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on the issues impacting corporate brands.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Galloway]

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