How Cuadrilla try to distort the dialogue (but don’t quite get away with it)

Cuadrilla’s community newsletter banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In July 2012 Cuadrilla and their PR agency, PPS Group, created a “community newsletter” which was posted to thousands of households in Lancashire.

It contained claims about the safety of fracking which were evidently not sustainable, so local group Refracktion ( wrote to the ASA with a list of claims which it believed required scrutiny.

The ASA ruling, released on Wednesday 24th April 2013, identifies 21 ways in which the 8 page leaflet breaches the ASA’s advertising code on grounds including being misleading, misleading by omitting material information, making subjective claims, making claims without adequate substantiation, and exaggeration. More detail of these breaches is provided at the end of this article.

The ASA’s adjudication means that Cuadrilla’s “newsletter” may not appear again in its present form.

A spokesman for Refracktion commented:

“Cuadrilla make great play of their commitment to a “fact-based conversation” about fracking and have even suggested that the case against fracking has been commandeered by extremists. What we can clearly see here is that the necessary “conversation” is not being distorted by extremists but by Cuadrilla themselves.

There are many people in Lancashire trying to make rational, fact-based decisions about the potential impact of fracking on their communities, and this misleading information that has been peddled by Cuadrilla has made this much more difficult than it needs to be.

It is unfortunate that Cuadrilla will not be made to publish any sort of apology and so very few of those who were exposed to the questionable information in this newsletter are likely to realise the extent to which they have been misled. However, we feel this ruling is a clear vindication of our efforts to maintain a truthful and constructive debate on the issues around fracking.

Now that the ASA have recognised that many of the claims made in this leaflet were misleading and were not capable of substantiation, we believe local people will realise that they need to look much more critically at the information put out in future by Cuadrilla and their PR machine.”

How do we think the people who have read and trusted the newsletters from Cuadrilla will react?
We are sure that local people who have read the newsletter will be very disappointed to find the extent to which it falls short of the standards of integrity that might reasonably be expected of a company which “sees itself as being part of the communities it operates within”. If Cuadrilla are seeking a social licence to operate this is not a good way of going about it.

What specifically were we objecting to in the content that made us involve the ASA?
We believed that the leaflet contained statements which were demonstrably untrue but which might still convince those who had not looked into the detail of the issues. We felt that by involving a neutral arbiter like the ASA we could highlight the discrepancies in an objective way. It is not those who Cuadrilla have dubbed “extremists” who are saying that they have mislead the public but a respected and impartial national organisation – The Advertising Standard Authority.

What response would we like to see from Cuadrilla?
Sadly, the damage has largely been done. Thousands of these leaflets have been distributed all over the Fylde. We feel that to show their integrity Cuadrilla should apologise to those who have been mislead and ensure that the information which they put out in future, whether on their website, or in publications like this, shows evidence of a much higher standard of accuracy and integrity.

Cuadrilla’s PR Management in Crisis?

And what of PPS Group, Cuadrilla’s PR advisers who work “in the tougher areas of communication“?

We asked PPS to confirm whether or not they were involved in preparing this “newsletter”, but they refused, point-blank, to answer.

We asked by email

“Can I ask you to clarify the level of involvement that PPS Group had in the preparation of Cuadrilla’s Summer 2012 newsletter?”

but all they would say was

“As you know, PPS works with Cuadrilla; beyond that, we are not minded to get involved in a detailed discussion on Cuadrilla’s processes for issuing newsletters.”

We even asked face to face at Pipers Height, but all we got was “no comment”.

However, according to the ASA , Cuadrilla did confirm in correspondence with them that PPS were the agency involved, and they are duly listed on the adjudication as “The Agency”.

We wonder why PPS were so keen to distance themselves from this particular publication when they are obviously so proud of other similar “newsletters” produced for Cuadrilla that they even feature on their promotional blurb about the PR Week award they won in 2011 for their “crisis management” work with Cuadrilla.

PPS Crisis

PPS Crisis

It is perhaps reassuring to learn that even the PR industry realise that Cuadrilla are facing a PR “crisis” of their own making, which needs management.

By the way, looking at PPS’s pictures there, isn’t that local MP Mark Menzies allowing his image to be used in pro-fracking PR yet again? That’s not very smart of him in our opinion, especially as the text of the PPS publicity here states that as a result of their efforts “Government ministers, civil servants and local MPs spoke positively about Cuadrilla and an attempt by opposition groups to stand against sitting councillors in seats close to the company’s two locations at local elections was defeated.” That does rather make it sound as though our local politicians are so weak that PR companies are able to successfully affect our democratic process doesn’t it?

Why is PPS’s involvement relevant? Well, it seems that Cuadrilla are not the first of PPS’s clients to have issued a Community Newsletter which incurred the displeasure of our friends at the ASA.

Back in 2006 Countryside Properties, who were developing an asbestos affected area in the Spodden Valley, issued a “newsletter” in an attempt to persuade rightly concerned local people of the safety of what they were doing (Now does that ring any bells?).

The ASA censured this “newsletter” for multiple transgressions in the areas of “substantiation”, “honesty” and “truthfulness”.

Private Eye reported this rather gleefully in issue 1192 as follows:

PPS Group

PPS Group

PPS have reacted strongly to any attempts to suggest that it was involved in the fake letter writing alleged in the Private Eye article. Their Managing Director, Stephen Byfield, allegedly told the Evening Standard “We were not involved in support letter generation, and if you even seek to imply that we were, we will sue your arse.” Given that they apparently employed Private Eye’s favourite lawyers, Messrs Carter Ruck, they obviously wished to guard their untarnished professional reputation very carefully.

Investigating the background to these allegations we did find this article quite interesting and note that it doesn’t seem to have attracted the attentions of Messrs Carter Ruck in spite of having been published nearly 6 years ago:

We are not going to comment further on the other allegations made by Private Eye about PPS Group’s ethics other than to say that if Francis Egan really wants to have a “fact-based conversation” about fracking, we think that he’d be well advised to get rid of his intermediaries and start to engage directly with the local people of Lancashire.

Maybe he could start by having his own staff rather than PPS employees answering the phone when people ring their “community helpline”, and maybe they could even set up their own email address instead of making people write to if they have questions.

The level of distrust in the community is growing daily, and Cuadrilla’s insistence on hiding behind the screen of a PR company to do their “crisis management” is one of the main reasons why.

The ASA code breaches in more detail:

Refracktion complained that the statement:

“Cuadrilla uses proven, safe technologies to explore for and recover natural gas”

could not be supported by evidence.

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 3 counts : Misleading, Substantiation and Exaggeration.

Refracktion complained that the statement:

The Government’s own review, published in April 2012, also concluded that it was safe to resume hydraulic fracturing [in the Bowland Basin]

was not supported by the facts

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 2 counts : Misleading and Exaggeration.

Refracktion complained that the statement:

“[The report] too set out safeguards to help ensure that there will be minimal seismic activity and no prospect of any resulting damage”

could not supported by the facts

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 3 counts : Misleading, Substantiation and Exaggeration.

Refracktion complained that the statement:

“This data will allow us to adjust the injection volume and rate during the fracturing procedure, managing the process to ensure that no one should notice any disturbance or even be aware of the activity”;”

could not sustained.

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 3 counts : Misleading, Substantiation and Exaggeration.

Refracktion complained that the statements:

“We also know that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to contamination of the underground aquifer” and “There is ‘no evidence of aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing””

were demonstrably not true.

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 4 counts : Misleading, Substantiation, Subjective Claims and Exaggeration.

Refracktion complained that the statement:

“Cuadrilla’s fracturing fluid does not contain hazardous or toxic components”;””

was self-evidently not true.

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 2 counts : Misleading and Misleading by Omitting Material Information.

Refracktion complained that the statement:

“Our permanent site at Elswick has been quietly producing natural gas since 1993. Located just off the main road in to Elswick … The Elswick well was hydraulically fractured in 1993 and extracts gas from the sandstone formation.”

was intended to provide a falsely reassuring comparison between what had happened on a vertically fracked well and what would happen in future using horizontal fracking.

The ASA agreed that this statement breached their code on 3 counts : Misleading, Misleading by Omitting Material Information and Exaggeration.