Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Blue-Sky Rhetoric 

Environmentalists have damned the Bush administration. The Bush administration defends itself lamely against accusations that it has dirtied the air and made the environment worse.

It's interesting rhetoric to watch because it is couched in belief sets that could not be more opposed. That is why I was interested to hear a CEO deeply involved in the energy industry say last week that the US will depend on oil-, gas- and coal-fired plants for at least the next 20 to 25 years and maybe longer. With the price of oil and gas rising, that will mean more coal-fired plants than either of the other two fuels. The US has thousands of years of coal in the ground and a diminishing supply of oil and gas. What this tells me is that the rhetoric of both sides needs modification. The environmentalists need to stop fighting the inevitable, and the Bush administration needs to look again at how to make coal and oil-fired plants more environmentally acceptable.

But I think I can say this won't happen soon. The two sides have no desire to accommodate, and all the public relations gestures in the world won't heal the breach. Simply put, they detest one another -- or at least, it seems that way. Many public issues result in standoffs, and they appear to be insoluble challenges to public relations counselors. The only way one can make progress is to get off the stage and to talk quietly in the background where neither side feels compelled to posture.

I knew a woman who did this years ago when the first environmental clashes arose in the 1970s. Feelings were so high that meetings were kept secret from both environmentalists and industry leaders, other than those in the room.

Not all public relations should be done in the open. There is space for backroom work, and counselors shouldn't be afraid to move silently if they can get an issue off dead center.

Public relations does not have to be public.


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