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The news coming out of Japan couldn’t be worse for the American nuclear industry. Manufacturers, suppliers, and electric utilities must be cringing with every headline, as the information includes science, statistics, and security…all subjects that your average consumer is fairly incapable of understanding (and certainly not via short blasts of news).

Most news reports here suggest that the events will have a significant impact on our nuclear policy, and they cite peoples’ psychology and their emotional reactions. Warren Buffett says that plants won’t get built for a long time because people are simply scared of radiation. Doesn’t this seem like a perfect opportunity for the nuclear industry to 1) tell everyone the truth, and 2) do so clearly and substantively?

Its silence says a lot. You could probably make the case for keeping mum and just hoping people forget about the story, just as most folks have conveniently forgotten about the last oil shock. Or maybe they’ve reasoned that there’s just no good to come of  talking about any form of energy since all of the sources that can be centrally controlled and distributed through meters and counters (i.e. make loads of money) require substantial environmental and social risk. No average voter was asked if he or she thought that coal-fired plants were safe or good for the environment. Those decisions are made by experts who don’t really care that we’re concerned or dumbfounded by the technology. 

But their silence could also suggest that our fears are well-founded, which would mean that somebody is going to speak up, whether consumers and/or producers, and that perhaps it could have an effect on plans for the future.

So if I was advising the nuclear industry, I think I’d suggest they think long and hard about coming up with a communications plan. In it, I’d address:

  • Acknowledge the 800 lb. gorilla. A really big, horrible thing was and is happening in Japan. You’d have to be numb to not wonder if it could happen here. So how about acknowledging how bad it is? Don’t downplay it. Maybe even tell us how seriously you’re taking it, and how reviews, tests, and checklists are underway, or whatever. Maybe sending skills and resources to Japan to help?
  • Provide real context and perspective. OK, so there’s math that shows its more likely that the Moon will crash into the Earth before something like this happens again. It’s not enough. I don’t understand the math behind flipping a coin. This is a potential opportunity to explore not just how the industry keeps us safe but why we need it in the first place. Less glossy advertorial and more plain-spoken truth
  • Don’t ask us to truth you. Take a cue from the financial services industry and avoid relying on blather about “we’ve been around for 100 years” or other statements about being trustworthy. Saying you’re telling someone the truth means you’re probably lying. Prove the truth by showing us who, when, how, and why safeguards are in place and operate. Show us how you’re upping everything in the wake of the Japan crisis. If it’s not substantive, don’t use it.

And, yet again, I think this situation is a wonderful opportunity to use social media as a mechanism to engage with consumers. Unfortunately, the standard approach these days is to develop a glossy simulacra of a community, and then fill it with nonsense and gimmicks. Nuclear doesn’t have a brand problem, it has a reality problem and, if they chose to talk to consumers about it, social technology might come in handy.

My money is on them saying nothing, followed by a slick communications strategy that ignores most of what I’ve just written.

Which tells me we all have something to worry about.

(Image credit: Reactors)

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