Chesapeake Energy Propaganda Campaign:
This is a short version of a long story about Chesapeake Energy and what I called their “full-frontal, body-slamming, leg-whipping, arm-twisting, head-butting propaganda blitz” regarding the Barnett Shale.
The Barnett Shale is a geological formation that lies under North Central Texas, particularly in the heavily-populated area that includes Fort Worth, DFW Airport, Tarrant, Johnson, Denton, and Wise Counties. The Barnett Shale contains vast reserves of natural gas at depths of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.
Until a few years ago, it wasn’t profitable to exploit these reserves. But new horizontal drilling and extraction technologies, combined with higher prices for natural gas, have resulted in “drilling fever” throughout north central Texas.
Chesapeake Energy (based in Oklahoma City) is the biggest, and by far the most visible, player in this 21st-century “gas rush.”
What happens in Fort Worth is critical to companies like Chesapeake whose business plan is focused on exploring and exploiting these deep shale reserves.
The Barnett Shale is only the first of several major shale plays across the country. And importantly, Fort Worth is the first major city to deal with the effects and consequences of dozens, if not hundreds, of gas wells to be drilled and to operate not just inside the city limits, but throughout all parts of the community and its neighborhoods.
What happens in Fort Worth may well set a precedent for how shale reserves are developed across the country.
The Chesapeake propaganda blitz began early in the spring of 2008, featuring Texas native Tommy Lee Jones on billboards, radio, and television ads all over the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
A couple of months later, Chesapeake began buying air time to show a half-hour infomercial titled “Citizens of the Shale.”
Then last July they announced the creation of a new Internet television venture called “shale.tv” to be headed by the “walter cronkite” of Dallas-Fort Worth TV news, Tracy Rowlett. In addition to Rowlett, the new venture recruited major producer and editor talent in John Sparks and Olive Talley, plus a handful of other respected journalists.
Then they again bought airtime on a DFW television station to broadcast “Unconventional: The Story of the Barnett Shale”, a 50-minute paid-for-documentary produced by Trinity Films.
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, came word of a (quote) “16-page children’s coloring and activity book featuring Chesapeake Charlie – a friendly beagle who knows a lot about natural gas production and its many benefits.”
That did it. From my perspective, when you bring in adorable dogs in a coloring book for kids, you’ve crossed the line. I decided to look more closely into this “marketing initiative/propaganda campaign”.
Here’s Aubrey McLendon, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy, introducing the “Citizens of the Shale”. Pay attention to how he represents and characterizes what anyone other than a Chesapeake employee would clearly label as an infomercial. (I’ve added the subtitled text for emphasis.)
After McLendon’s introduction, the program is hosted or narrated by Ginny Simone, identified only with the label of “Reporting.” However, far from a “reporter” in the journalistic sense, she’s actually a Senior Vice president with the Mercury Group, a subsidiary of Ackerman McQueen, a major public relations firms headquartered in … Oklahoma City. If you google Ginny Simone, you’ll immediately discover that her primary gig is as a (quote)’reporter’ (unquote) for “NRA News,” the in-house promotional and advocacy organ for the national rifle association.
So let’s see how true to his word CEO McLendon is regarding his introductory claims about the citizens of the shale “investigative news report.”
Honest and balanced? By my count, 37 different people speak during the “investigative news report.” 33 speak in support of urban drilling, most without qualification or concern … 4 express significant concerns or are unsupportive.
Here are four speakers who appear in the program. Do you think they are supportive or unsupportive?
Here are four other speakers … supportive or unsupportive?
Here’s a different analysis. The program includes about 26 minutes of speaking time during the program. Of those 26 minutes only about a minute, or 3 and a half percent, of the speaking time is given to those 4 unsupportive citizens.
So after analyzing the “Citizens of the Shale” and researching more about Chesapeake Energy and Aubrey Mclendon …here’s what happened …
Last year I was one of the designated “community columnists” for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I decided to devote my August 9th column to this propaganda effort.
Within hours after the column came out, I was surprised to be contacted by Olive Talley. She acknowledged and appreciated the concerns I raised in the column and, on behalf of Tracy Rowlett, John Sparks, and the others, offered her willingness to work with me to address those concerns.
I met with Olive a few days later. Which led to me inviting Olive, Tracy, and John to attend my class at TCU, General Semantics for Mass Communications Practitioners, at TCU. Olive and John tentatively accepted.
But over the next month, the world economy and the fortunes of Chesapeake Energy changed dramatically.
Here’s a chart of the high and low daily stock prices for Chesapeake for the 12 months since October 2007.
The stock price peaked at $74/share on July 2nd. The shale.tv venture was announced on July 11th. With the collapse of the stock market and world natural gas prices in late September and early October, Chesapeake Energy stock sank to a low of $11.99 on Friday, October 10th. The next Monday, October 13th, Chesapeake announced a series of cost reduction actions, including the termination of the shale.tv project.
However, even after losing their jobs, Olive and John still made it to my general semantics class at TCU on November 11th. (Coincidentally, the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war to end all wars.)
This is a slide I showed to my class in introducing John and Olive. There are indeed many issues related to the Barnett Shale natural gas development. There are legitimate disagreements between those who advocate with different interests. The long-term, and even short-term, impacts on individual property owners and the community as a whole might be significant.
So, from my perspective, what the community needs is an open, transparent, good-faith debate with all parties having equal access to relevant facts, figures, and information.
Is that possible when the corporation with the biggest financial stake tries to dominate and manipulate the terms of what little debate they’re willing to allow?
Right off the bat, John and Olive revealed a healthy dose of defensiveness. With his opening comments, John took issue with the fact that I introduced him as a “former journalist.”
Olive related her disappointment with former colleagues at the Dallas Morning News who disparaged her, John, Tracy, and the others as “shills for the Shale.”
But despite their defensiveness, they led a wide-ranging discussion with the class for a full hour. They talked about the major stories they had reported or produced throughout their careers. They explained that, had the shale.tv venture continued, they would’ve brought the same journalistic skills and processes to bear … regardless of who signed their checks.
They regretted that their former co-workers, and the general public, didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they could still act and behave as responsible journalists, even in the employ of a corporate interest. They regretted that their corporate employer pulled the plug on them before they had the opportunity to air even one report.
And yet, at the end, they both admitted that, had their shoes been on others’ feet … they would probably have exhibited the same degree of disdainful skepticism as their colleagues.
I came away impressed with John and Olive. I have no reason to doubt or question their sincerity, and had they been able to continue with shale.tv, I believe they would have held true to their journalistic convictions, which I’m guessing, would’ve eventually caused them some problems with their paycheck signers.
John and Olive’s candid comments to the class revealed what might be considered a “dirty little secret” within the professions. Despite the fact that virtually all major universities include both journalism and ad/PR within the same department or college, there exists a huge chasm between the professions … at least from the perspective of some journalists.
Beyond the obvious similarity that both professions involve writing and “communicating”, the purpose of a journalist differs from the outset to that of the advertiser or PR practitioner.
A PR initiative benefits from employing the appearance of a “journalistic influence”. And in fact, as the Chesapeake infomercial clumsily illustrates, shows, PR often tries to represent itself as “news.”
The more a PR initiative is perceived as “news” or “journalism”, the better. After all, other than format and fees, what’s the difference between a “press release” and an advertisement?
The opposite holds for journalists … real news and real reporting is tainted and discredited once the scent of PR is detected, suspected, or reflected.
But, unfortunately, the current business conditions have resulted in a one-way flow … there’s no money or (apparent) career potential in journalism, but for the time being there’s still money and still hiring in PR. Journalists have few career avenues … other than to shuffle across to the other side of the street, so to speak.
So where does all of this leave us?