Some PR Advice for the US Nuclear Industry

I'm MeltingAlec Baldwin gave PR advice to Charlie Sheen. I’m going to give some to the United States nuclear power industry.

It’s not a position one way or the other on nuclear technology, simply as commentary on one of the epic energy messaging challenges of all time.

And since the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the US account for about a fifth of our electric power (much more, depending on where you live), we’re going to have to get comfortable with their existence for some time to come, whether we like it or not.

(I’ll be addressing my environmental friends in a separate post.)

Dear Nuclear Industry:

It’s time to put down that Kool Aid, sober up, and get your head straight. You’ve been huffing your own fumes, and it shows. Rule #1 of political PR is, never base your communications strategy on what your friends think of you.

Not least because they might not be there when you need them. But mainly because your friends aren’t your audience right now. Neither are your enemies. It’s everyone else in the middle who is trying to figure out what to make of all this.

Cocky-and-dismissive is not the way you want to go here.

Fukushima may not be quite the fatal blow that some greens think, but your reputation is going to need some serious reconstructive surgery and years of painful, expensive rehab to get back to where you were two weeks ago.

At times like this credibility is more precious than gold, and a lot harder to come by. So stop squandering whatever you have left and start looking like you take this thing at least halfway seriously.

For starters, fire your current PR people. Send them home. Take away their telephones. Give them some other errand to do. Because every time these guys opened their mouths this week, you looked worse.

Last Saturday, Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Mitch Singer said to the Washington Post, “Obviously, any time you have an incident at a nuclear plant that involves any kind of damage or an explosion, it’s not good . . . But in the scheme of things, is it a disaster? We don’t think so.”

Mind you, this was after the world had already started seeing hydrogen explosions on TV. Be careful where you’re putting those chips.

The next day, Singer told that Americans should actually feel encouraged by the crisis. “There hasn’t been any significant release of radiation. So obviously they must be doing something right at this point.”


Meanwhile, Singer’s NEI colleague Steve Kerekes was confidently telling the Financial Times that “(e)ven if you have a radiation release, although that’s not a good thing, it’s not automatically a harmful thing. It depends on what the level turns out to be.”

Maybe, maybe not. But even at that early point in the crisis, it should have been clear to everyone that what we were seeing was no garden variety steam leak.

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Singer said he didn’t think the troubles in Japan would have any impact on the nuclear industry here. “In fact,” reporter Stephanie Simon added, “he said the explosion should reassure Americans that their own plants will be prepared for any emergency, because the industry will disseminate lessons learned in Japan around the globe.”

He also told USA Today that “even the most seriously damaged of Japan’s 54 reactors has not released radiation at levels that will harm the public, and that’s a testament to their design and construction, and how effective their employees have been at planning and response.”

And on it goes.

These talking points might go over like gangbusters behind closed doors with Capitol Hill friendlies. Out here in the light of day, not so much.

When you’re in the middle of the biggest political crisis your industry ever faced, you also need to keep you eye on the right ball, and not get caught up in pointless sideshows.

Yet on Thursday, Kerekes decided it would be a good idea to attack a ship that had already sailed by challenging the Obama administration’s 50-mile evacuation zone announced the previous day.

Really? This is the thing you want to be talking about? Right now? Come on, people. Focus.

Kerekes capped off the week old school,  with a classic, knee-jerk overreaction to a Union of Concerned Scientists report assessing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to 14 “near-miss” incidents at US nuclear plants in 2010:

“It’s ridiculously overstated, ridiculously,” he harumphed to CBS News.

Except that right now, we’re sailing way past what most people thought was the end of the map. So nothing is ridiculous anymore. As just one small indicator, poison control centers are already taking reports of serious reactions in people overdosing on all those potassium iodide tablets.

Do not confuse yourselves with BP and think you can just wait this one out, by the way.

Sure, they’re still in business after Deepwater Horizon. That’s because at the end of the day, for most Americans, the Gulf was always somebody else’s problem. You can always skip the shrimp, or go elsewhere for spring break. So much the better that the sludge everybody was conditioned to see is largely out of sight today.

But radiation is a boogeyman precisely because you can’t see it. Just wait until the California dairy industry has to start fending off questions about cesium. (Early next week, I’m guessing.)

There is also no short-term substitute for BP’s product. But you? Forget Greenpeace. You’re up against the coal and natural gas guys. And sure, BP enjoys plenty of government subsidies. But they don’t have to go before Congress to ask taxpayers for $60 billion in new loan guarantees. You do.

Oil companies also don’t need the blessings of penny-conscious state public utility commissions, who were only just starting to forget the billions of dollars of cost overruns their ratepayers got stuck the last time the nuclear ship ran aground in the 1980s – some for plants that were never even built.

Finally, BP doesn’t have to go to Wall Street looking for investors, either. Those guys might not care about actual risk, but they are damn well going to need to believe that you can successfully sell yourselves to the public long enough for them to get their money back.

Bottom line is, nothing you can do is going to change public perceptions as fundamental as the ones you’re up against. The smartest thing to do is not try. Embrace the inevitable. Stop saying things any sixth grader knows aren’t true. Get out front of this thing.

It doesn’t matter that you might really, truly believe that all this is nothing more than irrational fear run rampant. You need to find a way to meet the people where they are before you can start reeling them back to where you want them to be.

That means you start every conversation with something that at least sounds a little like an explicit and sincere acknowledgment that you get it that there are real concerns about this industry.

Tell us you respect us enough to understand this one simple fact, and that you’re going to do everything possible to ensure the nuclear power plants we depend on for a fifth of our electricity are absolutely safe.

It should be you guys, not the White House that calls for a top-to-bottom review of your own systems.

It should be you guys who promise that no stone will be unturned, no corners cut.

It should be you guys who are out-talking the Sierra Club on this.

That’s true, by the way, even if you don’t really mean it. You can always figure out how to wriggle out of promises and obligations later, if that’s what you want. But right now, your job is to dig your way out of a smoking hole in the political landscape.

So, for your sake, please at least pretend you care what we think.

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2 Responses to Some PR Advice for the US Nuclear Industry

  1. Fantastic article!!!

  2. Yes good piece!

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