It was sad to see that Josh Fox didn’t win an Oscar for Gasland, his thought-provoking film about America’s natural gas industry, which had been nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
Fox’s no-holds-barred investigation into “hydraulic fracturing”, a controversial method of extracting gas from the ground, was the talk of Hollywood in the run-up to the award, and not only because of the film’s trailer which shows flames shooting out of a kitchen tap.
The pre-Oscar buzz surrounding the film was thanks in no small part to a vociferous campaign launched by Energy in Depth, an industry lobbying group.
On the day Fox received his nomination, the group’s executive director Lee Fuller issued a strongly worded statement to the media in which he denounced the film as “propaganda” and defended “clean-burning, job-creating American natural gas development”.
As part of a wider damage limitation exercise, the group (or rather its PR agency) set up a Facebook account, Twitter page and website, which devotes a whole page to unpicking the claims made by Fox about hydraulic fracturing and its links to a variety of environmental and health problems.
Given the nature of Fox’s film, it’s hardly surprising that America’s oil and gas industry appointed a PR agency to help it counter Fox’s claims and secure more balanced coverage. After all, helping companies and individuals to protect their reputations in times of crisis is what PR companies are paid to do.
However, surely in this instance, the industry has scored an own goal, for it has inadvertently raised the profile of a film that it had specifically set out to undermine, proving yet again the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
In public relations, there is always a fine line to tread between pro-actively pushing your messages to the media and reacting to events as they happen. Get it wrong and you risk inflaming a story that might have easily and quietly gone away.