The New York Times, which buys lots o ink, published a lengthy story titled Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush on June 25. Therein, Ian Urbina reported that natural gas companies were gambling enormously on wells, promising huge profits and new energy resources, but suggested that the gas may not be as cheap and easy to extract as the industry is claiming.
In the e-mails, energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts and question whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves, The Gray Lady reported. Many of these e-mails also suggest a view that is in stark contrast to more bullish public comments made by the industry, in much the same way that insiders have raised doubts about previous financial bubbles.
Well, the article went over like a lead balloon at the headquarters of Chesapeake Energy, which called the Times report inaccurate and misleading in a June 27 news release.
Our industrys operations and investment decisions are informed and guided by the best geoscientific, petrophysical and 3-D seismic data available and analyzed by some of the best drilling, completion, production and reservoir engineers in the business, said Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon in a statement. The results of the industrys efforts to revolutionize natural gas development and production have been extraordinary and continue to improve.
The Times story was obviously motivated by an anti-natural gas agenda. It is telling that the reporter chose not to interview a single reliable source and instead selectively quoted emails from unnamed sources or well-known industry critics dating back to as early as 2007 to invent a series of inaccurate and misleading allegations.
Then Andrew Phelps, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, noted that Chesapeake bought Promoted Tweets for certain terms such as the hashtag #naturalgas as a PR tactic:
Spokesman E. Blake Jackson, who manages the @Chesapeake account, is actively replying to tweets that mention natural gas, retweeting users who link to favorable stories, and sharing links to stories from other news outlets, including a fracking-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial. (The company posted McClendons email-to-staffers rebuttal on Facebook, by the way, not the corporate website, to make it easily sharable.)
Back in the day, a corporation stung by a newspaper story might try to buy a full-page ad in the paper. But that route was controlled by the very organization they were battling. Targeting PR ad dollars toward social media is another sign it isnt just stories that can spread virally its also the conversations around those stories, pro or con.