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E.ON's Kevin Gresham on Digital Tools and Community Acceptance

4 min. read

Social “needs to connect to community values”

You could argue that E.ON’s Kevin Gresham has the broadest perspective on renewable energy public affairs in the U.S. Active for years on the boards of AWEA, SEIA and ACORE, he’s as likely to be walking the halls of Congress as he is working legislators in statehouses in any of the approximately 20 states in which E.ON operates. My colleague, Mark Sokolove, sat down with Kevin during the WINDPOWER trade show in Houston to talk about both the current and ideal roles for digital platforms in building community acceptance for wind projects. (E.ON is a client of Tigercomm.)

Our big takeaways from the conversation with Kevin were:

  • Not only has Facebook replaced newspapers in rural communities, but the features of the platform lend themselves easily for use by NIMBYs and opposition groups.
  • E.ON’s found that the key to successful content on social media is connecting with community values. That requires a tight integration of social media with in-person community engagement efforts.
  • Wind IPPs are too limited right now in how they use social media to engage communities that are considering hosting wind projects.

 

-- TRANSCRIPT --

Mark Sokolove:

Thanks for joining us for the next in our series Not Just for NIMBYs, an ongoing conversation with those in the wind industry that are on the front lines in engaging communities and winning public acceptance for wind farms. We're joined today by Kevin Gresham, Vice President of Government Relations and External Affairs for E.ON North America. Kevin, thanks for joining us.

Kevin Gresham:

Mark, good to see you. Thank you for having me.

Mark Sokolove:

Sure.

Mark Sokolove:

One of our survey participants described Facebook as the new public square in a lot of rural communities where there are wind farms. Do you agree with that statement? Have any thoughts?

Kevin Gresham:

Absolutely. Like a public square... You expect a public square, if you go to a speech or a concert or something, think Fourth of July, there's just a lot of noise, and there's a lot of chatter. It just keeps going, and social media's going to be the same way. You get people interacting, and the relationships show, that's what you have. For IPPs, you have to maintain message discipline. Otherwise, you begin to get off track. So, a message that hits community values, that shows emotional tie to a project and the benefits of the project, that's the message you want to convey, and you just have to keep on that.

Kevin Gresham:

Facebook is now the new ... It's the gathering place. It's the call to action. All the logistics are right there on Facebook, and that's for the opposition. They know when every meeting is, and they know where to go. So, yeah, it's there, and it basically does replace the newspaper.

Mark Sokolove:

Another thing that we've heard is that opponents ... They organize online, and then they show up at meetings.

Kevin Gresham:

Yes, they do. Yes, they do, even down to what T-shirt to wear, which color. Seriously. I mean, we've seen ... Walk into a room of white shirts or red T-shirts or whichever. You know that they're there, and that's just to show ... Whether it's a county commission or permitting board or whatever, it's to say, "Okay, we're all here, and we're all against."

Mark Sokolove:

What have you seen the industry do in order to prepare for that, or what more could they be doing?

Kevin Gresham:

I think first of all, I think industry looks at that. They know to prepare. The people on the ground who are maybe attending that meeting, they basically know what's coming and what the main issues are that they're going to have to address. I think that that's valuable if you can kind of track what's happening on the social front. Then, you're more prepared about what the issues are. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of a counter message out there, and it can't just facts and figures. It needs to me related to the values of the community.

Kevin Gresham:

So, more of an emotional tie. Otherwise, I think it falls flat because numbers are numbers, but why do they matter to the people in that community? Because we're bringing a lot of benefit to the community with these projects. We need to get that across, and we need to show how that relates to the community's values. That's going to shift community to community, and you can pick that up on social media also. You see what those values are.

In reviewing the study that we did on the use of digital tools by IPPs, was there anything that surprised you about the study?

Kevin Gresham:

No, I think it was actually confirming what I suspected. I think that was very valuable because it shows the limited use by IPPs of social media. It shows us where we have to go and also says we need to make a concerted effort to talk about that and move forward.

Mark Sokolove:

Right, right. What has been your experience on both with E.ON and also just your role in the industry in AWEA in terms of the industry's overall use of digital tools for community engagement at the wind farm level?

Kevin Gresham:

I think there's been definite ramping up of the use of social media to promote wind and promote renewables. I've seen that across the board. For community engagement, I think we need to be more focused, and I think we need to develop more air cover. But I think then it's up to developers to really look at who's the audience? Who are they talking to on the ground? What are the different channels that can be used?

You've got a certain set that uses Twitter, some that use Facebook, others that use other media that are out there. What's the best way to reach? I think that's where there needs to be more education for developers and maybe a little bit more resource to show where to go and how to make that work.

 

 

Topics: Marketing & Communications Digital Media & Advertising