When the World Sustainability Energy Days kicked off in Austria on February 28th, Communication Works’ Managing Partner Sabine Froning brought the message that biomass is facing reputation challenges that will not go away only by “spreading the good word”. We asked her, what should the sector do?
CW: Sabine, you were participating in a session called “How to make pellets cool again”. What’s wrong with pellets?
SF: When a session is titled “How to make pellets cool again”, the issue is not the temperature, it’s the timeline. There was a time, when pellets were cool and hyped as one of the most important solutions to climate change. Today, biomass is considered as part of the problem.
CW: What happened? Is there new scientific evidence against pellets?
SF: No, not really. But biomass isn’t the new kid on the block anymore. Demand and use have increased much. When a business is not in the niche anymore, there’s more attention, more scrutiny. And with the success came the largest challenge for the sector: local supplies are not always enough to cover the pellet demand, and the longer the supply chain, the more vulnerable it is.
CW: What exactly are the issues in the supply chain?
SF: Well, the supplies come from a great variety of forests in the world, and there is a vivid discussion whether all of them are really sustainably managed or whether biomass sourcing contributes to deforestation. Romania and some places in the US have been in the spotlight, for example. There is also the issue of land use, and in some cases even human right concerns.
Criticism – deal with it
CW: And that makes them uncool? Isn’t biomass really a huge success story? Sales have been going to the roof for years.
SF: Sourcing is one of the biggest corporate reputation risks, ranging little below corruption, child labour, unethical sales methods… This means that not living up to expectations can cost a project or even a whole sector its licence to operate. It is no coincidence that supply chain risk management has become a top priority in basically all sectors, as organizations lose millions because of non-compliance fines and incidents that cause reputational damage. Bribes, child work as much as deforestation can cost an organization millions in brand damage. Even if there are only few “black sheep”, the impact affects the reputation of the whole sector.
CW: But there must be “good stories”, too!? Why doesn’t the biomass lobby simply show how good its product still is?
SF: Of course, there are. And you find them on the homepages of all the national and international associations, who do a great job in praising the benefits of the technology. You also find them in “nerd media”.
CW: And why don’t mass media pick them up?
SF: It is just not what mainstream media and people are interested in. They are looking for answers to the critical questions – not self-praise.
You can’t tell people what to ask for. To make a long story short: What really makes a good story is knowing what people are interested in. Whatever the criticism is, you cannot ignore, but have to deal with it.
CW: What do you mean, when you say “deal with it”? Why should people be more interested in criticism than in praise?
SF: Acknowledge concerns and respond to them. People are worried about the insatiable biomass hunger of industrial-scale plants like Drax in the UK? The biomass industry needs to position itself with regard to Drax! Forests are being cut down illegally in Romania? The sector needs to respond how it will address this flaw in implementation of European law! US media expose biomass exports to Europe damaging American forests? Time to explain what the scale of imports is and how the sector works to reliably ensure forests will be preserved.
No story finds resonance unless it relates to what people are concerned about.
Digitalization exposes the decline of trust
CW: How does the change to digital and social media influence the image building of energy sources?
SF: Digitalization has led to a level of accessibility of information, decentralization and direct influence of citizens on concrete decisions never believed to be possible. It has radically changed the relationship between citizens and any kind of company or authority and it exposes the decline of trust in and legitimacy of institutional processes that has accelerated rapidly during recent years.
CW: Has the energy transition become a victim of that? What has this to do with biomass?
SF: No, studies show that there is large support for the energy transition. But it means that the success of any existing and future energy project depends on companies better understanding how the citizen-customers see the respective technology.
What do people think about the role for biomass in the future? What are their reservations? What are the absolute no-goes? What are the safeguards? What is most important to them beyond the energy and even climate question? What is important to them locally? What are the actions you need to take that could win them over? Which arguments resonate and which do not resonate at all with them? Are there differences when it comes to age groups, gender, income, education? What are the scenarios which antagonize? Which scenarios can help building consensus?
Perception is reality
CW: Everybody is talking about engaging people and being people-centric. What exactly do you mean by that?
SF: How constructively and effectively you engage in these questions in direct dialogue will be decisive for the success of the sector. And how ever wrong you may think people are in their responses: perception is reality! Knowing your stakeholders and real dialogue are your chance to learn and improve your business model. The only ones you have.
CW: But what if people are really critical. Why would one want to invite opponents to a dialogue?
SF: (Laughs) On the contrary, the more critical a topic is, the more important it is to address it at an early stage, to enter a constructive discourse with opponents and to involve stakeholders – how negative or positive their attitude may be – in finding the solutions. Missing out on society’s expectations bears a high risk for developers and operators to face strong opposition. Opposition going viral causes legislators to act and can cost the sector its license to operate. Using customers as a community, on the other hand, comes with a good chance to create a sustainable base for business. If developers, operators and decision-makers involve and treat future customers as their main stakeholders and partners, pellets may very well become a little bit cooler again.
Community Scouting – turning citizens into a community
CW: Sabine, you are offering a method – a tool – to deal with issues like this. Explain!
SF: Communication Works in cooperation with the Stockholm School of Economics, has developed a scientific approach to scenario-driven stakeholder engagement: Community Scouting. It has been designed to enable experts to open up for diverging opinions and expectations of a non-expert but engaged external world.
The core is dynamic scenario development with the purpose to understand how stakeholders will react to specific actions and messages (i.e. what your company could do or say) and to interact with them. This is not a one-off exercise but can be repeated to refine and deepen insights. While the actual surveys constitute the base material, Communication Works focuses in particular on the scenario development with the experts, the joint interpretation of the results, and the follow-up actions, turning the audience into active participants of your project.
CW: Have you already performed a Community Scouting study on biomass anywhere?
SF: No, not so far. Only a number of findings from research that we have done previously for District Heating lead to some preliminary conclusions. That’s why I came here: I really think it would be a perfect tool for the biomass sector to find out how to make pellets great, oops (laughs), cool again…