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A Few Lessons From Rick Berman's "Win Ugly or Lose Pretty" Speech for the Cleantech Industry

4 min. read

The other day, the New York Times broke a fascinating story of a secretly-taped speech by Richard Berman (we've included the audio, edited to include video, images, etc). Berman is a consultant who has, among other things, worked to "undermine his opponents, like labor unions or animal rights groups that have tried to spotlight the treatment of animals at meatpacking plants" - to the Western Energy Alliance, a "Colorado-based oil and gas drilling trade and lobbying group funded by 400 independent natural gas and oil producers, service and supply companies, banking and financial institutions and industry consultants." Here's an excerpt from the New York Times story, followed by a few lessons the clean energy industry might gather from this.

The company executives, Mr. Berman said in his speech, must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups. And major corporations secretly financing such a campaign should not worry about offending the general public because “you can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said.

Think of this as an endless war,” Mr. Berman told the crowd at the June event in Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance, a group whose members include Devon Energy, Halliburton and Anadarko Petroleum, which specialize in extracting oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. “And you have to budget for it.”

Berman went on to advise the oil and gas executives that they needed to aggressively "reposition your opponent's brand," "take away [their] moral authority," "undermine [their] credibility," "minimize or marginalize" your opponents, and play "hardball" via heavy use of opposition research and "mak[ing] it personal." Berman referred to this as "endless war," in which "fear and anger" should be used heavily as "the two [emotions] that resonate best with people."

That's tough, even nasty stuff, no doubt.  And yes, Rick Berman is clearly an amoral, utterly cynical man, apparently in this business first and foremost for the money. However, that doesn't mean he isn't talented at what he does, or that he doesn't have a few smart things to say about framing and winning the battle to define one's opponent.  It's sort of like when Tigercomm President Mike Casey interviewed former "super lobbyist" Jack Abramoff about what he did and how he did it. Again, you don't have to think what Abramoff  did was ethical - and we certainly don't believe that it was - to learn lessons from him that might be helpful for the cleantech industry in its battle with the fossil fuel folks. Same thing with Berman. For instance:

  • Both Abramoff and Berman agreed on the need to be "aggressive," and that -- as Mike Casey wrote in late 2010 -- the fossil fuel industry understands its competition with cleantech is a “full-contact game” and is playing that "game" accordingly -- to win. The question today, as Casey noted in his introduction to the Abramoff interview, is whether clean energy is ready to “play for keeps… because your opponents are.” We certainly believe that cleantech leaders should hear what Abramoff and Berman are saying and respond accordingly.
  • While Berman's focus on "fear and anger," and his vow that "we're not going to tap into the sympathetic," is both harsh and off-putting, we believe he's onto something here. Specifically, we agree with him that "Emotions drive people much better than intellectual epiphanies." We've previously written about Guy Kawasaki's view that the key to selling anything is to “enchant” people. We've also discussed research into the importance of reaching people at a "gut," even "moral" level. The point is that, while the facts certainly matter, it's also crucial to reach people at an emotional level, to create "a compelling frame, or overarching perspective, that has the potential to tap into consumer emotions." In his own, crude way, that's what Berman seems to be getting at.
  • We also certainly would not discount the importance of "opposition research," such as the great work Rolling Stone did in exposing the Koch brothers and their “toxic empire.” Same thing with the excellent job the Checks and Balances Project has done in identifying fossil fuel front groups and the ways they masquerade as innocuous "think tanks" or "experts."
  • We'd add that the huge advantage cleantech has in diminishing the credibility of pro-fossil-fuel propagandists is a powerful one: the truth. Unlike the fossil fuel industry's fallacious arguments against the cleantech industry or climate science, we happen to have the vast majority of the facts, science, and public policy arguments on our side. Which means that Berman's advice about establishing "common knowledge" --  where people have heard something "enough times from different places...that you reach a point where you have solidified your position" - should, at least in theory, be a lot easier for us to do than for them.
  • Same thing with going on offense, as Berman recommends. The fact is, there's no reason for cleantech to be on the defensive, certainly not on the merits, given that we have all the arguments - empirical, environmental, moral - on our side. Now, we just have to marshal those arguments effectively - and budget accordingly - to win the "war" Berman and his fossil fuel funders are waging against us, and to make sure it isn't "endless" after all.