In last summer’s European heat wave one apparently innocuous photograph found its way onto the pages of a French newspaper. The picture showed a nuclear power plant being sprayed with water to keep it from overheating (as the caption explained) while temperatures soared.
If we thought the weather conditions at the time were hot enough, the mercury was about to leap a lot further on the delicate thermometer that measures media speculation and public concern.
Within days, news of European nuclear power plants being sprayed with water to stop them from ‘exploding’ had blazed a trail world wide to ignite some vivid headlines. The journalists believed they had a great story, the Greens and others could not believe their luck as they fuelled the anti-nuclear rhetoric – and the result was a deserved red face for the nuclear industry. As a journalist, and someone who has chosen to work within this industry, it is not easy to say that – but learning from our mistakes is what life is all about, provided we do learn from the past.
So what was the answer in this particular case? Good old-fashioned communications – in other words, talking to each other!
I personally spoke to some nuclear media relations personnel as the French affair unfolded and politely pointed out the potential of a ‘media accident’ unless the facts of what was going on were clearly explained to a bewildered public. NucNet’s own channels to the international media were open and ready to help dampen down the situation, provided journalists could be given some facts.
Three days later, having received no response, I telephoned again, only this time the same media relations team could only say: “Sorry, we’re just too busy right now to talk to you with all of these journalists calling us.”
Any lessons learned?
As a non-scientific person, an industry outsider brought in to help improve the nuclear communications flow through NucNet, it is often easier to see the potential for traps and public relations pitfalls that lie ahead. However, no amount of early warnings will work if we do not talk to each other, take advice when it is offered, and network among ourselves more regularly.
The recent annual get-together of international nuclear communicators held in Barcelona – PIME 2004 – showed that there is a wealth of talent in our industry in terms of individuals who have trained and worked hard to build bridges with the media and the general public. They showed how to provide factual information about our industry to an information-hungry media and general public. They speak eloquently on the issues, can react promptly and bring a human face to an industry that is frequently portrayed as ‘inhuman’ by those who will oppose any use of nuclear power, however persuasive the arguments in favour. The trick is, of course, to carry on communicating long after the conferences are over.
Money spent on communications is as important as setting aside cash for nuclear projects - in fact, communication is probably more important
So what stops us communicating effectively? The answer here lies in the boardrooms – not in the over-stretched PR or media relations departments of nuclear power plants and utilities. It is up to our industry’s company presidents, CEOs and chairmen to ensure that communications is a priority item on the agenda each and every time the ‘top brass’ sits down for a meeting – and that the budget to pay for this invaluable work is there too. Money spent on communications is as important as setting aside cash for new nuclear projects, uprates, modernisation and the rest. In fact, communications is probably more important.
We can also learn a valuable lesson from those who oppose our industry, those well-financed individuals and organisations who work tirelessly to put across negative messages, seek to create crises where there are none, and who are always only too willing to take any platform or appear in front of a microphone or camera and preach their anti-nuclear gospel.
Left unchallenged, malicious half-truths or complete lies are quickly adopted as ‘truth’ and the damage is done. It is not enough to brush aside anti-nuclear rhetoric as not worth answering, or to ignore inquiries from journalists. Journalists frequently report nonsense they are fed by anti-nuclear activists simply because they know no better – and if we ourselves do not cultivate the media, we deserve all the bad press we get.
We should always remember that the amount of politically-inspired hot air that can be pumped out via television, radio, newspapers and the Internet is infinite. Those of us who communicate within and on behalf of the nuclear industry, at whatever level, have a duty to speak up – frequently and forcefully.
Web of communication
However, we must tread carefully. In today’s world of instant communications, it is all too easy to get lost in a media maze full of false paths that can lead us directly towards a dead end. Internet and intranet sites, newsletters, magazines and the rest are excellent tools that we can use to help put a positive nuclear message across. But it is not enough to take information we come across, repackage it and then pass it on as an exercise in information sharing. All of us involved in communications should first satisfy ourselves that the information we are processing – or reprocessing – is accurate. Can we rely on the source? Could the message we intend to put across be interpreted differently?
A rule I learned as a journalist was: “If in doubt, leave it out.” However, I prefer the modified version: “If in doubt, ask!”
We have more than enough societies, associations, journals and periodicals that serve our industry and our collective skills and experience can be a potent force for effective nuclear communications on a global scale if we work together – and more importantly talk to each other. In the nearly five years I have spent with NucNet, I have seen the value of how our own network can assist the global nuclear information flow.
We can speak with one voice – clearly, confidently and without allowing technical jargon to dilute our messages. However, we first need to work harder at talking to each other.
John Shepherd is executive director of NucNet
|Steve Kidd March 2004 pullquote
|If you could make a strong economic case for new reactors, the battle would be won