How to handle a scandal? Pick on coal.

President Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy” long before the Lewinsky perjury scandal.  But that one kind of cemented the legacy.  The President lied about an affair with a subordinate to a Grand Jury (who was investigating a sexual harassment claim by a former subordinate), lied about lying about it to the American people, and eventually got to keep his job as if none of it happened.  Famously, Dick Morris’s polling showed that the American people didn’t care about his boss’s poling so long as it was a matter of personal indiscretion and not a government matter.  When Clinton and Co. managed to turn the whole circus into a story about sex, it lost its steam.

President Barack Obama is in plenty of hot water today, and his approval rating is starting to wane.  Even the hard left is less than pleased with the NSA revelations.

How does the President blunt the scandal-based criticism and win back his most ardent supporters?  The same way Santa punishes bad kids: coal.  In a speech on Tuesday, the President has promised bold action through executive fiat on climate change.  Coal plants are expected by be in the crosshairs, as they have been since Obama was a candidate.

The rules don’t have to go into effect for Obama to win.  The best case scenario for the administration plays out like this:

  • Pro-energy groups, who tend to have plenty of allies on the right, react strongly to the rules.  Words and actions from the center-right are focused on the President’s extreme agenda.  Suddenly, the most influential opinion-leading voices drop the discussions about non-impeachable issues like the IRS targeting the Tea Party and the NSA surveillance programs.
  • Environmentally-themed left-wing groups rally to shut down coal plants.  There are teach-ins, rallies, and maybe even a hunger strike or two supporting the President’s crusade rather than defending Edward Snowden.
  • Energy industry companies and trade groups spend money on paid advertising and grassroots activation to mobilize public support opposing the rule changes.  Every computer screen in Washington, D.C. that pulls up Politico sees banner ads about clean coal, and pro-coal TV spots run during the local DC news.

Clinton made it through a scandal by getting people to look at it in a different way and trying to win popular sentiment to his side.  Obama may get through a half dozen scandals by prioritizing a hot button issue to create the type of hyper-political environment he claims to hate.


Green World

Phelim McAleer made the rounds in DC this week to promote his documentary FrackNation – which airs next Tuesday on AXS television.  The North Ireland native noted several times that what was intended to be a documentary showing the truth about natural gas extraction methods ended up being as much a commentary on the media.

An exchange during one of McAleer’s presentations especially stood out.  A conservative blogger noted that the New York Times closed its green desk, and asked if that counted as a victory against media bias.  “Did we win this debate?”  McAleer countered that what can best be termed environmentalist ideology permeates reporting.

“Everything is green,”  he said.  “Why do you need a green desk?”

Strong point.  Just as getting labeled “the conservative version of _____” (or “the liberal version of _____”) promises failure, having a desk specifically designated for covering a certain issue or movement sequesters that coverage.  Given the Times’s political leanings, having a green desk was probably a waste of a desk in the first place.

And while documentaries tend to be dry, the teasers suggest that if you’re into this type of thing, it might be fun to watch.  When talking about political documentaries, this is usually the point where I play the wet blanket and say that explicitly fictional stories can be more effective long term in shaping opinions.  But since that hasn’t worked so well for the other side of the fracking debate, perhaps I ought to shut up…

Big Oil’s worst nightmare is, ironically, big oil

Questions may fly about who will pay how much to clean up the latest catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but the answers affect more than British Petroleum’s cash reserves.  The accident which claimed the lives of rig workers and threatens the coastal environment’s short term health comes just months after President Obama made a big show of opening up new areas to offshore energy exploration.  From a business angle, at risk is the future of offshore oil drilling for BP and any other company that relies on the United States government for exploration rights.  In the coming weeks, the drumbeat to cap the wells and bring the oil derricks back to terra firma will only grow louder, unless BP and their colleagues take the right actions now.

The Action

Eventually, there will probably be a rational explanation of why BP wasn’t entirely responsible for all the economic damage, but as the current debate over financial reform legislation demonstrates, rational explanations will do little to convince populist politicians. In addition to directly funding clean-up efforts, BP would be wise to work through local governments to administer small business development programs to help industries affected by the spill get back on their feet – and possibly even exceed their previous production.

Working through local and state governments is especially key.  Criticisms of BP are most likely to come from those voices, but if they are satisfied with relief efforts, they could be powerful allies.

Incidentally, BP should not act alone in this.  Energy companies have been asking to drill for resources in the waters off the U.S. shoreline for a long time, and the most compelling argument against them has come to realization.  While BP’s visibility and leadership is vital, other companies have a dog in this fight, too.

Messages and Messengers

There are two important themes BP and the industry must advance.  First, they must highlight what they are doing to rebuild – the programs they put in place as well as the results.  The second (which involves the whole industry, is to re-affirm the value of offshore drilling.  In both cases, the people delivering the messages matter as much as the messages themselves.

Toyota’s handling of the safety issues which plagued them earlier this year offers some good advice to follow.  Toyota recognized that not only was the perception of their cars damaged, but leaked emails and memos damaged the credibility of their top executives.  Americans don’t trust CEOs, so  Toyota turned to the two groups that could offer credible, positive messages: the engineers and assembly line workers who make the cars, and consumers.

This is where online communication – and especially online video – will be important.  A video channel featuring commentary from government officials and environmental workers will offer a transparent and compelling chronicle of the relief efforts. And oil industry workers – from those on the rigs to those in the refineries – offer an important insight as well.  For them, offshore drilling is as much about putting food on the table as it is about lowering gas prices, and they are now the best spokespersons for the industry.

The reality is that we live in a time where often, government picks winners and losers in the business world – a proposition that puts BP and their colleagues at risk.  Further, since they are hoping to tap reserves in areas controlled by the federal government, The oil industry will not soon shed their image as a huge, greedy, quasi-government entity.  Americans are traditionally suspect of power.  The best thing they could do is admit some level of responsibility, work to rebuild, and – most important – invite the American people and media in to see the details.