Dissecting the opposition

shale and fracking communications strategiesThere is no argument that the public’s perception of shale exploration in the UK is not only poor but has effectively undermined progress in the country. The opposition encountered in Balcombe, Manchester and in Lancashire has impacted on local councillors who have, to date, not consented any planning applications in this field. This is despite on-shore oil and gas exploration and drilling having taken place for decades, and the fact that North Sea oil wells have been fracked since the 1970s without incident.

The industry readily accepts that it has not engaged properly locally, or handled opposition and protesters well. A question asked at every shale conference and seminar is: ‘how do we properly engage with opponents and protesters’ when pushing forward a planning application?
The answer is perhaps the industry could adopt some of the techniques used by the infrastructure and property development sectors which has been practising the principles of ‘Localism’ for many years.

It is not suggested that opposition can be overcome, far from it: but if those opposing an application to explore or frack are engaged with, their concerns listened to and an attempt to address these made, at least they feel as though they have been consulted even if the only possible outcome is to agree to disagree. If, however, people are not engaged with their concerns tend to multiply, and then they will speak to and influence their friends and neighbours, rumour and hearsay will take over and before long the opposition is an enormous monster that is out-of-control and impossible to deal with.

Having accepted that there is no option but to engage, the next question is to how to engage. The answer is not to consider all opposition as the same; there are different groups with different objectives and motivations ranging from the ‘eco-warriors’, who will oppose anything involving carbon emissions, through to local residents who actually have genuine concerns about safety, traffic and the impact on their house price. The opposition needs to be analysed and then divided into groups, and then different strategies adopted for each.

Opposition segmentation

Effective stakeholder engagement for shale and frackingAlthough each project will be different, a logical approach would be to split the opposition geographically, and then sub-divide these into smaller groups according to their motivation.

Geographic dissection would be: local – people who live next to the proposed site or within a specific area (surrounding streets); Regional – those people not immediately near the site but close by (same village or district), and; wider – those living further afield, such as in the same county or nationally.

The smaller sub-groups, according to motivation could be:

  • Warranted – those people who have legitimate concerns based on real information or studies. This group tends to be more local and regional.
  • Influenced – those people who have concerns, but are broadly following those expressed by others. This group tends to be local and regional
  • Followers – those who oppose any kind of oil and gas in their area on principle: for any reason. This group tends to be in all, but more regional and wider
  • Activists/campaigners – those who will oppose oil and gas exploration using any means or argument available whether justified or not. This group tends to be wider.

Managing engagement

Handling a complex and multi-layered consultation programme requires effective management and monitoring. These can be achieved using a stakeholder matrix and sentiment monitoring programme.

A stakeholder matrix is a database which enables monitoring and tracking, ensuring regular communications with stakeholders and that all enquiries are responded to. It is a working document and the focus of all engagement with each of the groups, sub-groups and individuals.

There are a number of tools on the market to use for sentiment monitoring, one being Symfonix ®. This system actively monitors the internet and harvests mentions of the project and other relevant key words, whether on blogs, social media or online media, and attributes a sentiment; negative, neutral or positive. These are plotted geographically, identifying where specific issues are concentrated, and chronologically, enabling the impact of various announcements and events on changes in perception to be analysed.


community engagement surrounding fracking and shaleHaving segmented the opposition, implemented management and monitoring systems, separate strategies for engaging with each group can be development and implemented. For example, local residents would have concerns about the landscape impact, house prices, traffic and safety – the aim would be to deal with this group on a one-to-one basis – personal contact and briefings, and at an early stage. Efforts should also be made to counter any misinformation distributed to local residents by opposition and protest groups.

Regional stakeholders would be addressed together, perhaps through road shows, social media, newsletters, media and online. ‘Eco-warriors’ and protest groups should be engaged on a selective one-to-one basis, probably through social media, specifically to counter misinformation.

Local councillors are another group to be handled separately, although some would argue that there is little point as few local councillors will have the courage to support or approve an application. Many councils would ‘upwardly delegate’ controversial decisions to Planning Inspectors as it is politically expedient to do so. If the Government has its way, shale applications will be fast-tracked through NSPI so diminishing the need to engage with councillors.


Applications for shale exploration and fracking are complex and controversial. There is no question that the relevant communities and stakeholders have to be engaged with, and that the concerns and arguments put forward by residents and protesters need to be addressed and challenged. Although this is not something the oil and gas industry in this country is used to doing, with its recent record a testament to that, by adopting a segmented approach with management controls and sentiment monitoring, new applications could move forward a little more smoothly.

Opposition will never be entirely overcome, but companies can work with local communities better to overcome the majority of misconceptions associated with shale and fracking.