Friends of the Earth gets fractious

Communications is an important part of any company or campaign group’s strategy and when it goes wrong it can go really wrong.

Here we look at an example of why any claims an organisation makes must be backed up by evidence, or run the risk of being very publicly pulled up on it.

Friends of the Earth and the Advertising Standards Authority

Last week saw Friends of the Earth agree to withdraw an anti-fracking leaflet which made claims that were not backed by evidence. Such claims as:

  • 25% of chemicals used in fracking can cause cancer
  • House prices will plummet
  • Fracking increases rates of asthma

FoE also used a picture of Grasmere in the Lake District, despite there being no possibility of fracking taking place there.

The Advertising Standards Authority’s 14 month-long investigation into a complaint made about these claims ended with an ‘informal resolution.’ This means the watchdog did not issue a formal ruling as FoE agreed to withdraw the leaflet and to not make the same claims again.

The charity has responded with Donna Hume, a Friends of the Earth senior campaigner, saying: “No ruling has been made against us. The ASA offered to drop the case without ruling after we confirmed that a particular leaflet was no longer being used.”

However Guy Parker, chief executive of ASA, wrote a blog post on 5 January confirming that Hume’s statement wasn’t correct:

“We told Friends of the Earth that based on the evidence we’d seen, claims it made in its anti-fracking leaflet or claims with the same meaning cannot be repeated, and asked for an assurance that they wouldn’t be.

“Friends of the Earth has said we ‘dropped the case’. That’s not an accurate reflection of what’s happened.  We thoroughly investigated the complaints we received and closed the case on receipt of the above assurance.”

Predictably FoE’s supporters are still continuing the defence on social media with many suggesting the ASA is only acting in the interest of fracking companies.

What lessons can be learned from this?

The ASA are becoming more and more of a force to be reckoned with in contentious planning applications.

This tells us that the accuracy of, and evidence for, any claims made is paramount. For either group to convince those in the middle that their ‘side’ is correct, they must show themselves to be trustworthy. For many people, citing information as fact with nothing to back it up will lead to scepticism of all information supplied by that group.

Some of those vehemently opposed to fracking were, and still are, trying to spin this as the ASA supporting fracking. Parker’s blog post was very clear on what actually happened i.e. FoE’s claims were investigated for 14 months and inadequate evidence was provided to back them up. The ASA hasn’t said the claims are untrue, just that the evidence seen by their investigators was not sufficient to support them. Perhaps we can conclude that the evidence does not exist – what other reason would FoE have for not submitting it?

The ASA has been commended for helping to stem the flow of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims, regardless of who is making them, and Guy Parker solidified the ASA’s positioned by being clear, concise and timely with his writing on the situation.

What does this mean for FoE and the rest of us?

All in all we can conclude that Friends of the Earth has done themselves no favours in this situation.

By making the claims in the first place and then dismissing the regulator’s action as “dropping the case” they have looked to be on the back foot and defensive. This episode will most definitely dent their reputation and will be used by their opponents now and in the future to discredit them.

At Remarkable Group we specialise in developing and implementing communications programmes, built on a solid base of policy research, analysis and strategic counsel. All this helps to ensure the focus is on furthering our clients’ commercial and organisational objectives and not on defending themselves against action by regulators.

Whether your organisation uses an agency, or in house team, working in this way will lead to an effective campaign that will stand up to robust opposition.

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A really well written, insightful and thought provoking piece. It’s interesting that the exponents of “False News” can be the “good guys”, as well as the “bad guys”. For sure one would expect that an organisation like FoE would fact check before putting out (potentially) spurious claims. In truth it was probably some well meaning volunteer who created said leaflet in the first place, but at the end of the day that’s no excuse..

By John