Bill Gates once said, “In this industry, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s already too late.” And while he was referring specifically to the technology and software sectors, a parallel can also be drawn to the U.S. energy industry: By the time you realize you’re facing a public opinion deficit, it’s likely too late.

Ten years ago, oil and gas and utility organizations didn’t have to worry about online outrage causing project delays and disruptions. But now, thanks to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, unaccredited watchdogs can be hyper-vocal without regard to research or ethical reporting. While established, principled media outlets have always performed an important investigative function, the absence of editorial review across the social media spectrum has provided online activists with the opportunity to manipulate public sentiment.

There’s an interesting social science phenomenon that impacts how the public responds to negative information — one that works against an organization that might offend the public’s sense of propriety. In 2010, a group of researchers analyzed 70 million social media posts. To quantify the substantial amount of feedback they obtained, they created a unique program to categorize interactions among users into four emotional groups: sadness, disgust, anger and joy. The study’s findings revealed that anger is more influential than the other studied emotions and that angry messages spread more quickly and broadly than any other. Online anger is like a snowball rolling down a mountain; once it gains speed, it’s next to impossible to stop.

Public Sentiment’s Effect on Projects

More than one energy project has been run aground due to online anger. And even though the offending organizations likely took immediate action to work with community stakeholders and address their concerns, the die of public perception is quickly cast.

Many project teams plan for public open houses, but quite often, those forums are held too late in the process and are too narrow in scope to change the hearts and minds of concerned community members. Organized project opponents who attend these public open houses aren’t always interested in objectively learning about the proposed project, they’re looking to spread their message, confront project representatives and obstruct the proposing organization’s ability to move forward. While there are public stakeholders who come to project meetings with open minds, a contested and tense environment makes the task of equitably considering the merits of a proposed project far more difficult.

While it would be great if more community members independently sought out information, it’s more likely that the messages they receive will come from their social newsfeeds and will form, at least in part, their perspective. The validity of information shared online becomes even more important when you consider a Pew Research Center poll that found that a majority of adults in the United State — 62 percent — obtain news from social media forums. A second Pew study found that, as of 2016, 79 percent of Americans use Facebook. Considered in tandem, these findings show just how important it is to maintain an environment in which civil, fact-based discussions can occur.

So how can a project team avoid online outrage? Proposing organizations must do more than play a waiting game if they hope to pass the public’s litmus test. Open houses, which are important but typically occur well after a project is publicly announced, must be preceded by an increased level of strategic outreach and communication. Project sponsors must make a greater effort to anticipate and address the public’s concerns, seek out additional opportunities to communicate the benefits of their project, and work to find common ground with opposing organizations. By preventing the sparks from starting a fire, project teams can focus on working for public stakeholders, rather than against them.

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As a senior public involvement specialist for Burns & McDonnell’s Stakeholder Management Solutions department, Chris Deffenbaugh specializes in public involvement, crisis communication, utility project development, integrated rate and resource planning, and communicating public and private policy options.