An unlikely love story: Alaska and renewable energy

Agree with it or not, Sarah Palin’s hymn to the oil industry, “drill baby drill” was one of the 2009 election’s catchiest mantras. Surprising to find, then, that Palin is a fan of renewable energy, according to a recent New York Times report. Furthermore, Alaska, the second-largest oil producing state after Texas, is fertile ground for renewable energy. Fuel prices there are high. Strong winds support a growing wind power industry. Palin wants 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from hydro power by 2025.

This doesn’t actually jibe with Alaska’s image as the oil and gas industry’s treasured love child, but there’s more to this story than irony. It speaks to why renewable energy’s time might actually have arrived. For real, this time, and not like the giant renewable energy head fake of the 1970s.

That was the era when the Gulf oil states started flicking the spigot on and off according to how many tricked out 747s the Saudi royal family needed, or how mad they were at Washington over U.S. Middle East policy. Gas efficient cars went mainstream. The first roof-mounted solar arrays appeared. Utilities invested in fuel cell development. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. Schools and other public buildings were designed using passive solar heating and cooling techniques. Then the price of sweet crude dropped into the cellar, Ronald Reagan ripped out the White House solar panels, and the renewable energy industry turned back into a hippie pipe dream.

So renewable energy is hot again, but why won’t it suffer the same fate it did when bell bottoms were in style? After all, we live in a market economy. No matter how good an idea renewable energy is, the market still favors fossil fuels. When the price of oil falls, the power that renewable energy sources produce is too expensive to compete.

The difference between now and the ‘70s is that the oil’s cost dynamics are changing permanently. China, India, and a host of developing economies are competing with the U.S. in international oil markets. Barring a complete collapse of those countries’ industrialization programs, that competition will keep oil prices at steadily higher levels. Also, the era of cheaply extracted oil is waning. An increasingly large percentage of oil reserves are hard to get out of the ground, and the prices will reflect the greater effort and new technology to bring it to market.

Rural Alaska is a laboratory for this dynamic. Market forces, acting through the price of shipping and the per-gallon price of the fuel, conspire to make fuel-generated electricity outrageously expensive in rural Alaska – five to ten times higher than in the lower 48. If the price of oil were lower, the market might be able to absorb the high delivery costs. But the price isn’t low enough, and here’s betting that it never will be. That means the local market conditions in rural Alaska will permanently favor renewables. “Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering,” the Times reported, “wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.”

How long before the base price of oil rises enough to make wind and solar the economic choice in rural Wyoming, the Dakotas, Texas, California, etc.? A long time off, maybe. But the fact that it is already happening in Alaska is not an isolated fluke. It’s the first sign that the economic case for renewable energy is growing strong enough to endure the next temporary decline in oil prices.

What PR isn’t – nine things

Most people equate public relations with media coverage and publicity or confuse it with advertising. They’re selling it short – way short.

1. PR isn’t narrow, it’s broad.
Public relations – properly practiced – takes into account every single stakeholder (or “public”) an organization deals with in its daily life. Employees. Consumers. Local communities. Local/state/federal governments. Bloggers. Partners. Policy makers. Channels. Reporters. Industry analysts. Buy- and sell-side financial analysts. Stockholders. Literally, everyone an organization touches. There may be different levels of priority, but they all have to be factored into the mix.

2. PR isn’t self-serving, it’s serving others.
Public relations has a broader – and more strategic – agenda. It’s all about earning a trusted reputation with stakeholders by acting in their best interests – not the organization’s own myopic agenda. An increasing number of smart companies are adding corporate social responsibility to their agendas for this very reason.

3. PR isn’t advertising.
Advertising exists to sell. Advertisers can communicate whatever they want (within reason of course) because they pay for it. They can decide what they want to say, where they want to say it and how often they want to repeat themselves. It’s a controlled process.

By contrast, public relations is an uncontrolled process. It’s an adventure, shifting constantly as it mirrors real-time happenings.

4. PR isn’t best at awareness building.
There are lots of ways to build awareness. PR’s “secret sauce” is its ability to build credibility.

5. PR isn’t sales, but it influences sales.
Some people confuse search engine optimization (SEO) with PR. They’re two completely different things. SEO is focused on optimizing a Web site to increase targeted traffic. PR is focused on earning a trusted reputation which in turn creates positive word-of-mouth.

6. PR isn’t publicity or marketing.
Public relations is typically relegated to the marketing function. This organizational structure may reflect the perceived role of PR within an organization, namely that it exists to help market products and services.

While promoting products and services may be a piece of the PR pie, it should never be its sole focus. When it is, public relations becomes a lower-level function called publicity.

7. PR isn’t one-way, it’s two-way.
When you send out an e-mail blitz to a prospect, run an online banner ad or issue a news release, these are all examples of one-way communication. The message is crafted and pushed out. These are closed-loop systems.

By contrast, true public relations is an open system and a two-way process. The goal isn’t simply to communicate, but rather to be understood and believed. To affect this attitudinal change, continual conversations must take place between the communicator and message recipients (publics). If companies/organizations don’t listen well or engage in open, honest dialogue with the people they want to influence – and change behaviors when necessary –trust isn’t built.

8. PR isn’t fabricated.
The technology industry learned a valuable lesson with the dot com bust. If you spin stories that aren’t true, the fabric doesn’t survive many wash cycles.

Effective public relations isn’t rooted in hype. People are smart and instinctive; they quickly figure out when unfounded claims are bogus. When they do, brands suffer damage.

9. PR isn’t about “me,” it’s about “you.”
To become a successful brand, a product or service must become a personal, positive thing – an individual experience – something that feeds a person’s own self identity.

Great PR is focused on helping a company strategically figure out how to deliver a consistent brand experience, which in turn, yields a community of interested, involved participants.

Green economy will bring new measures of success to replace growth

Venture capitalist Paul Maeder backed some of the biggest winners of the tech boom – Chipcom, Avid Technologies, Sybase, SQA. Now Maeder, a co-founder of Highland Capital Partners, is turning his attention to companies developing the technology to support an environmentally sustainable economy. Maeder shared his views on progress toward a sustainable economy with the Brodeur Clean Technology Practice.



Super Bowl ’09 ads tackle corporate social responsibility

There was plenty of usual advertising fare on last night’s Super Bowl, from Pepsi’s silly “Pepsuber” and Budweiser’s schmaltzy “Clydesdale Circus,” to Doritos’ frat boy “Crystal Ball” and GoDaddy’s steamy “Major league enhancement” spot.

But the ads that got my attention weren’t peddling products.

Among a sea of seemingly entertainment-for-entertainment-sake ads were a handful of visionary advertisers who aligned their companies with social causes while simultaneously driving traffic to their corporate Web sites.

Did you notice?

GE ran a clever spot – inspired by the Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow character – plugging “smart grid technology.” Yes it was self-promotional, but it also conveyed a “larger than GE” thought leadership message built around its successful “Ecomagination” campaign which urges a cleaner, greener world.

First time advertiser Pedigree used humor to make a bigger statement. It showed owners of exotic pets frustrated by their behavior:

  • An ostrich chasing a mailman
  • a wild boar sticking its head out a family car’s rear window to catch some air
  • a rhino rampaging through a living room as the owner called its name to go out for a walk
  • a bull that wouldn’t catch a Frisbee.

Pedigree capped off the frivolity with a crisp message:

Maybe you should get a dog. The Pedigree Adoption Drive. Help us Help Dogs.

Pedigree has promised to donate one bowl of food to animal shelters every time their Super Bowl commercial or related vignettes are viewed on the Pedigree Web site. Their objective is to get 4 million Web site views, enabling Pedigree to make the claim that every sheltered dog in America was fed for one day.

Denny’s literally stepped up to the plate with its Super Bowl ad. While advertising their Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s announced an amazing act of kindness: giving away free Grand Slam breakfasts for everyone in America on Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at all 1,500 locations. While self-servingly winning new customers, Denny’s is also building tremendous ‘helping others’ goodwill at a time when people need it most.

Frosted Flakes raised the bar with its 30-second “Plant a seed” spot, urging people to visit to nominate youth playing fields to be rebuilt pro bono by Kellogg’s. Tony the Tiger even made his Super Bowl debut. After sorting through thousands of nominated playing fields, Kellogg’s will narrow the list to 100. Then it will select 30 which will all be brought back to life by Kellogg’s.

The NFL and United Way have long collaborated on many “giving back” campaigns, frequently communicating their good deeds via TV spots. This year’s Super Bowl featured a simple ad that tackled the subject of childhood obesity and promoted a mobile text link to donate.

It’s about time.

72% of Americans wish their employer would do more to support a cause and social issue. 87% are likely to switch from one brand to another brand if the other brand is associated with a good cause (Source: 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Study).

Last night’s advertising assault finally included companies with a conscience who understand that it’s good business when brands make-the-world-a-better-place.