Sunday, March 21, 2010

Marketing Green Technology - PR Gets Caught In The Religious War Over Climate Change

A funny thing happened on the way to my Solar Power industry news release. On the plus side, a number of sources picked up the release and I got a lot of coverage. On the minus side, some of the initial buzz was centered around hysteria spurred by the "there-is-no-such-thing-as-global-warming" constituency.

Here in Silicon Valley, we understand that manufacturing photovoltaic material, the stuff that makes solar power cells work, is a technology market. It's basically the same process used to make silicon wafers for those integrated circuits that drive all of your favorite electronic devices -- but making a sandwich with cheese instead of meat. In recent years, this has been THE growth market in the semiconductor industry, pushing the industry for material efficiency improvements, increased capacity, and lower cost.

So, imagine our surprise at the emergence of an anti-innovation constituency. Simply put, there are people out there who have adopted an ideological dogma that there is no such thing as global warming or climate change. For these people, the idea of spending money on solar power is a slippery slope to admitting that some of their fundamental beliefs are wrong. While that might not seem like a big deal, many of the polarizing aspects of our modern society seem to drive people to an ideological need to cling to some of these tiny concepts like they are essential to identity and existence -- instead of cogito ergo sum, it's I don't believe in global warming, therefore I am.

Here in the technology space, you see this kind of behavior play out sometimes in challenges to innovation. Think about those meetings that you've been in where that one guy grabs onto one tiny snippet of data and uses it as justification to tear down an entire development framework.

Here's an example of how that might play out
Back in the 1990's, there was a consortium formed to help drive flat panel LCD research here in the valley with the objective of keeping the US competitive in the design and manufacture of LCD panels. Imagine conversations with our technology opponent back then:
opp: Why do we need to invest in LCD panels, my current CRT works perfectly.
pro: Well, LCD panels use less electricity than CRTs. They will reduce power consumption, lower your electricity bill, and help reduce global warming.
opp: There is no such thing as global warming. This is a waste of money. We should not invest in this.
Of course, that same guy probably has an LCD monitor on his desk now. If the purpose of innovation was "run-away desk clutter caused by overly large CRTs" or "strained backs caused by lifting heavy CRTs", he would probably argue against it with equal abandon. But the simple fact of the matter is that while all of these are benefits of innovation in LCD flat panels, none of these benefits were the driver for innovation.

Technology is Apolitical
Here's what these people miss -- technology is essentially apolitical. The same guy who doesn't want to believe in global warming probably doesn't think twice when he doesn't have to replace a battery in his calculator because it uses a photovoltaic cell for power. Photovoltaic cells didn't get designed into calculators because of some vast climate change conspiracy, they were designed in because way back when, some product marketing guy said, "if we add it to our product, consumers won't have to do anything with batteries -- engineering, can you do this?" They could. It sold. Now the design is ubiquitous.

At the same time, nobody sat around attempting to calculate a comprehensive global environmental cost comparison between manufacturing tiny batteries and solar cells -- nor ask the question, what if we could make biodegradable batteries out of the drippings from Costco rotisserie chicken ovens. We may wake up tomorrow and need to solve a problem like that.

This is how technology evolves. The photovoltaic manufacturing industry isn't ramping up because of some vast global warming conspiracy, it's ramping up because existing manufacturers are selling products at capacity and there is a market for more. They will make more hybrid cars for the same reason.

Addressing The PR Challenge
When faced with a PR challenge like this, the question that you always ask is what's the best way to handle it. Overall, what you don't want is the story to grow legs with your client as the focal point of a political controversy. At the same time, with many of the communication channels that play to the "controversy audiences", particularly those that communicate with a veneer of "news", they typically have more interest in whipping up excitement than in exploring factual aspects of the story.

So what's the best answer to deal with this type of issue? Depending on your audience and your situation, there are a number of ways to approach the situation and there probably isn't a single communications solution. My goal here isn't to provide a recipe, it's more about the thinking process. While you may be used to handling a mild-mannered PR program that just plays to the trades, you might run through a few exercises in your imagination exploring about how you might handle the situation if your apolitical technology suddenly became political.

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