For the better part of my career I’ve been in the “messaging” business, helping very large companies communicate with a wide variety of stakeholders: customers, media, regulators, investors, elected officials, suppliers, activists and more. Messaging is a discipline and there are a few fundamental rules. Effective messaging has to be honest, credible and consistent. It also has to be logical. So it’s with a certain amount of professional pain that I follow the communications apparatus of the Biden Administration trying to message its way out of multiple farragoes. It ain’t pretty.
Here are some recent headlines.
CNN: Biden’s Top Health Officials Sending Mixed Messages On Covid
Yahoo: Mixed Messages: How the Biden Administration Failed To Get a Grip On Afghanistan
Chicago Sun Times: The Biden Administration’s Mixed Messages On Covid-19 Discourage Vaccinations
ABC News: White House Defends Biden’s Mixed Messages On Refugee Cap
Washington Post: Biden’s Mixed Messaging On Immigration Brings a Surge of Haitian Migrants To the Texas Border
And, finally, this one, which bears further examination.
Houston Chronicle: Mixed Messages: Cut Down On Fossil Fuels, Ramp Up Oil Production, Biden Says
The Biden Administration’s gap in messaging about climate and fossil fuels is big enough to steer an oil tanker through, blindfolded.
On one hand, we have the administration’s earnest and well-intentioned efforts to accelerate the economy’s transition to a future of renewable energy. This is an epochal transition that must and will happen, much like the energy system transitioned from whale oil to kerosene in the 19th century. Today’s energy system, however, is vastly more complex and interconnected than it was in 1880. Setting goals for the transition is vital, and just as important — maybe even more important — is howwe make the transition. But Biden came out with both barrels blazing. He announced a comprehensive ban on leasing federal lands for oil and gas exploration and production, which is still in place. He quashed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have run feedstock down to the Gulf Coast refinery complex. He’s endorsed a ban on fracking. He called for “holding them (the fossil fuel industry) liable for what they’ve done,” although it’s not clear what he’s referring to. Producing fuel for cars and airplanes? Producing natural gas to heat homes and buildings? “And, oh, by the way . . . put them in jail. I’m not joking about this.” That is a direct quote.
At the same time, Biden has been recently calling on OPEC to increase drilling and production of oil and natural gas. Why? Because demand for energy is running ahead of supply and prices are going up. Oil prices have soared 64 percent this year. Natural gas prices have doubled. And prices at the pump in the U.S. have risen about $1 nationwide.
The inconsistency in messaging makes the head spin. To summarize: Let’s do everything we can to suppress the production of oil and gas in the U.S., but call on OPEC (a reminder: that includes Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Venezuela, not all friends of the U.S.) to increaseproduction. Oh, and while we’re calling on our OPEC friends to increase production as we’re tamping down U.S. supplies, let’s demonize the domestic oil and gas industry, which supports about 10 million jobs in the U.S. and provides the energy we need to move our cars and airplanes, heat our homes, hospitals and schools, and grow our crops.
President Biden, with respect, there’s a better way to do this. First, overhaul your communications team. As mentioned, effective messaging is a discipline — your team has shown a shocking lack of it this year. Second, how about injecting a little credibility, consistency and logic in messaging about our country’s energy future. Something like this:
“Look folks, here’s the thing. Energy is one of the most critical components of our economy. For more than a century, fossil fuels have enabled our modern way of life. As we now know, fossil fuels have also exacerbated climate change. But make no mistake. Oil companies didn’t do this to us. We did it to ourselves. We’ve all been willing, eager participants in the growth of the American economy over the past century, which has delivered immeasurable benefits to hundreds of millions of people.
“Do we need to transition to a greener future? Yes. Do we need to punish our oil and gas companies in the meantime? I don’t think so. Look, the global energy complex is one of the largest systems in the world. It can’t be totally reinvented in a few years or a decade. Or even a few decades, for that matter. It will take time and we need to be honest about this. At the same time, we need to ensure that we provide reliable, affordable energy for all who need it, which is everybody.
“The oil industry is one of our most important allies in this transition. Working together, we can do two things at once — continue to provide reliable, affordable supplies of energy while front-loading the innovation curve of renewable energy to provide environmental and economic dividends in the 21st century and beyond.
“This may not be what some people want to hear, but it’s the truth folks. Going forward, I’m recommitting my administration to this goal: telling people not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. This is the responsibility of leadership.”
If you do that, Mr. President — begin telling people what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear — you’ll be amazed at the consistency and integrity that your messaging will develop. It’s a discipline, so let’s develop some.