Beware the Frack Flack Attack

The fracking industry recently held a conference on using public relations to “overcome public concern over hydraulic fracturing.” The result: media reports of the conference have greatly increased public concerns about fracking, and especially about the industry’s downright scary public relations tactics.

Tapes of the conference that CNBC obtained from Earthworks activist Sharon Wilson show the fracking industry is poised for attack. Really.

As an industry flack from fracking leader Range Resources told his fellow fracking combatants, his company relies on several personnel who have experience in military psychological operations (or psy-ops). Such military operations entail the use of propaganda and other tactics to neutralize enemy communities by influencing public opinion.

These military psy-op staff are key, he said, because “all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”

Because the U.S. Army has been so successful in winning hearts and minds in the Middle East.

In fact, Range’s psy-ops tactics have been ruthless and intimidating, as exposed by local groups in Pennsylvania and several media reports (including a full hour episode of public radio international’s This American Life). The tactics show Range views the people in the communities in which it operates as the enemy, lying to them and manipulating them – all so that they can pollute their water.

At another session on how to develop a “Comprehensive Media Relations Strategy to Engage Stakeholders and Educate the Public,” a frack flack from Anadarko Petroleum told the assembled troops to “Download the U.S. Army-slash-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency.”

What he meant, he later told CNBC, was that frackers need to embrace a “broader move toward more active community engagement and increased transparency.” Obviously – after all, a more active and involved community is exactly what the Counterinsurgency Manual aims to achieve.

Range also backtracked on its psy-ops admission. Changing its public statement on the matter twice, the company claimed that the remark about using psy-op techniques was in response to a question, and was merely about the skills needed in emotional public meetings. Range also charged Wilson with sneaking into the conference (in fact, she paid and wore her name badge with her affiliation the entire time), taping the presentation in secret (it was being professionally taped), and altering the tape (clearly beyond her technical capabilities). As the company’s statement says,

We believe we need to be transparent, accessible and accountable and in order to do that you need employees who are comfortable engaging various stakeholders. Since not every company can go out and hire customer service representatives or communications professionals or maybe it’s not an everyday need, so companies should seek out natural communicators internally.

Right. And even better if those natural communicators can craft an intelligible sentence.

An industry spokesman who attended the conference said that the Range insurgency remark was a joke. “There are no black helicopters here,” he said.

Just flaming black water coming out of faucets in homes near fracking operations.