6 Election Takeaways for Cleantech Communicators

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The 2022 U.S. midterm elections provided historically surprising results. They were atypical in many ways, which is actually typical (in some ways) of the era of disruption we are in. Below are some communication lessons Mike Casey is highlighting for cleantech communicators. They are excellent lessons, so we are happy to share them here with CleanTechnica readers.

By Mike Casey, President and Founder of Tigercomm

Cleantechers, below I share some first impression takeaways from Tuesday’s election results. I offer these through the lens of my time in politics (25 years) but detached from any opinion I have about candidates or political views. These thoughts are offered strictly from a communications mechanics perspective, with the hopes that it’s of use to fellow clean economy communicators in your work going forward.

Authenticity counts more than polish. Three examples:

  • AZ gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake was a far better candidate and communicator than her opponent. She had decades of name recognition and credibility as a long-time television anchor. But she started as a largely apolitical local television news anchor who flirted with Buddhism and took a selfie with President Obama. She converted herself into a MAGA evangelist who despised the media she used to work in. This dramatic transition was under-explained, and it set her up to come across as a highly polished phony.
  • The same dynamic was in play with Ohio author-businessman JD Vance, who went from a conservative voice opposed to Trump to MAGA evangelist. Vance’s opponent, Congressman Tim Ryan, shouldn’t have been competitive in this increasingly conservative state (in which I grew up).
  • And, despite his extensive communications skills, Dr. Oz proved far less relatable than quirky Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. The Pennsylvania Lt. Governor used his unusual profile — informal dress, tattoos — to communicate a relatability that overcame what would have conventionally been a race-ending bad debate performance, as well as perceived gamesmanship about sharing the severity of the stroke he suffered.

Relatability and authenticity are a powerful combination. For their content marketing and corporate communications, clean economy companies with geeky tech DNA need to expand their comfort zones to maximize the impact of their content.

You must play the expectation game. The chatter on broadcast news the day after the elections was all about how the “red wave” fizzled. It’s not focused on the electoral wins Republicans made, which are appreciable and will result in real-world outcomes. Rather, it’s on how well Biden did in beating back the “historical” trends and how Trump played a part as well. I argue that this isn’t uniquely a quality of the media. Rather, it’s a quality of human beings. It’s a reminder that whether we’re communicating company valuations, stock performance, or how an early-stage commercial company’s product will perform, it seems that humans need an expectation set in their minds to understand things. As corporate communicators, we should seek to manage expectations we can beat. After all, expectations will be set — either by you or for you. You can try to decide who does the setting, and what expectations are set, or you can let others do that for you.

Durability of the highly ideological rural voter. For a sector that’s facing the task of building a lot of stuff in conservative rural areas, it is crucial that developers understand the cultural fabric and conversational terms. They face a combination of rapidly dying local media, the rise of Facebook, a truth-optional Twitter CEO, segregation of information sources, and a deep distrust of “elites.” We can’t change their worldview, but we can meet them where they are.

We. Are. Not. Doing. That.

In fact, NIMBY pushback is now a significant challenge facing solar, wind, storage, and transmission companies. Clean energy developers need to dramatically ramp up their campaign chops and budgets if they want to succeed. The Elmer Fudd approach (“Be vwary quiet”) to development is a dead-end alley that ends in project death. We should stop driving down it.

Americans don’t want politicians to take things away from them. Part of why the elections were much closer than anticipated was because the U.S. Supreme Court took away a reproductive right that had been reality for American women for 50 years. That’s relevant because the early chest thumping from Republican House members indicates they’re coming hard after the Inflation Reduction Act, especially the loan guarantee program. “Solyndra on steroids” is already one of their battle cries.

I am certain this sector is underprepared to defend the enormous policy gains achieved this year. I heard one industry colleague suggest we approach the Energy Foundation for help. That’s a common sentiment, but I see it as a collective cop-out. We now have a bunch of cleantech millionaires, and even several billionaires, in this space. It’s on us to grow up and pay for our own defense, rather than hope a green cavalry rides to our rescue.

That said, I should note that the investors we recently convened in the first CTLR Investors Roundtable were right: Clean energy’s growing incumbency in the U.S. economy will build in some backlash against any politicians who try taking away that progress. But we should treat that as a dietary supplement, rather than our primary nutrition to live off. We must defend ourselves constantly, proactively, and at scale. The cleantech industry suffers from a historical feeling that we don’t belong at the adults table. I assert that ship sailed when Governor DeSantis vetoed an anti-net metering bill last year that would have decimated distributed generation solar in Florida. See my colleagues’ group discussion on DeSantis’s motives here:

(Or you can listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or some other podcast network.)

Tradition-based predictability is less and less reliable. I could name a dozen news developments this year that political tradition would define as election deciders:

  • Have a stroke and painfully stumble your way through your one statewide debate. You go on to win anyway.
  • In a socially conservative state, run as an anti-abortion, “pro-family” candidate, get caught cheating and paying for abortions, yet stay competitive enough to force a statewide runoff.

The evolving media landscape requires an iterative, multi-pronged approach. Along these same lines, I told a client last week that the media environment is far less predictable than it used to be even 5 years ago. The ability to size up the attention-worthiness of a story and predict news media interest has shrunk appreciably. And good luck trying to accurately predict the potential virality of content. For content marketing, that reality argues for less reliance on legacy news media and more online testing of multiple themes and presentation formats.

Summary: We are seeing the latest results from a more disaggregated media environment, with more thinly staffed outlets. Americans hard-select from those more numerous choices the platforms that they think will reinforce their views, not challenge them with reality. Breaking through requires authenticity more than polish. There’s less predictability, and traditional communication rules carry less predictive power.

That’s the evolving landscape on which our companies need to market their products, executive teams, and ideas. To that work site, we’d better bring a full tool kit.

Featured image: Purple State of America map, © Greg Albers, via Github (CC BY-NC 4.0 license)

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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