ELIZABETH VILLEDROUIN: Hi. I'm Elizabeth Villedrouin. And my presentation today will be about the importance of context. So in times of trouble, we've all been told to choose our battles. But what happens when those battles are brought to social media? This summer, Mike Shellenberger, the president of Environmental Progress, went on a Twitter rant after a Greenpeace France employee tweeted that in order for France to meet their sustainability commitments, they must retire all their nuclear power plants by the end of this year. And Shellenberger interpreted this tweet as a call for France to replace their nuclear energy with fossil fuels. Later on that day, Shellenberger goes on to call out Greenpeace and other environmental organizations as anti-nuclear claiming that they spend millions of dollars to undermine nuclear energy development.
Now for some, nuclear energy is clean energy. So to be called out in this way was probably a bit troubling for these environmental groups. Well, I worked on one of these environmental groups this summer when the Twitter rant was happening. I was a clean energy communications intern for the Environmental Defense Fund. Shellenberger actually mentioned and tagged the Twitter account that I was overseeing. So when his tweets came up on my dashboard, I had to consider four key contextual factors to decide whether or not to engage in this battle-- Who Mike Shellenberger is, EDF's Twitter persona and audience, EDF's stance on nuclear energy, and the consequences of choosing to engage or not.
So the first contextual factor is who Mike Shellenberger is. He's the president of his own environmental advocacy group, Environmental Progress. And from what I can see, Shellenberger cares a lot about nuclear energy. And he tweets heavily about it, which could mean he likes to get people fired up on the topic. He's even done a TED Talk about it. And he's not alone in his views. He seemed to have built up a small network of 8,000 followers on Twitter who share his views for nuclear as well. So in some way, he is an influencer in the environmental landscape, a person that some people pay attention to when he speaks out.
The next contextual factor is EDF's Twitter persona and audience. So this involves looking at EDF as a whole and the program that I represented, EDF Climate and Energy. So EDF as a whole is a multimillion dollar nonprofit environmental advocacy group. And they're nonpartisan. So they work with people across the political spectrum to find ways that work-- that's their slogan-- for the environment and for people.
EDF Climate and Energy program has thousands of followers on Twitter, also across the political spectrum, supporters of very different energy solutions, not just clean energy. So our audience consisted of multiple networks who in turn hold different expectations for our Twitter account. And because expectations inform the way people and organizations perform in-person and online, the intermingling of EDF Climate and Energy's audience meant that I was dealing with context collapse, or an overlapping of real identities. So when tweeting to an audience like this, the networks become collaborators in the identity and the content that my team chooses to present. So although I was a clean energy intern tweeting about clean energies for our followers, my decisions were influenced by more than just our clean energy networks.
So when organizations have Twitter accounts, they like to develop a Twitter persona to guide how they want to be perceived online. So our Twitter persona was a group to be seen as experts and thought leaders, people who are in the know about important energy issues and policies. So one of our goals for the Twitter handle was to remain relevant and be breaking news about energy and policy news that are coming up. So to accomplish this, I had to make sure that my tweets were fact based, objective, and non-controversial which can be hard these days since controversy makes headlines almost every day. But I tried my best. And my challenge was to ensure that amid these news trends and controversies about energy, EDF Climate and Energy was always perceived as proponents of clean, smart, modern energy technologies. So when certain news stories and Twitter rants came to our attention, I had to keep in mind this Twitter persona, our unique context collapse, and our diverse audience.
So the third contextual factor is EDF's stance on nuclear energy. So knowing that aging nuclear is struggling to compete economically with lower cost energy like natural gas and renewables, EDF works to ensure that if these plants do retire, they're replaced with clean energy alternatives. So in the past, EDF has opposed bailouts for uneconomic nuclear power plants in Ohio. But they did support subsidies for nuclear in Illinois. So in simple terms, EDF's stance on nuclear is very nuanced. They pursue market based solutions to reduce the carbon intensity of the grid. But they evaluate each situation on a case by case basis. So Shellenberger's tweets was just one referencing one case among many.
The last potential factor is the consequences of engaging or not. So the biggest issue we had with these tweets was that they were false. EDF has never created ads against nuclear. Doing that would oversimplify their very nuanced stance about nuclear and would alienate certain donors and partners. So if we responded with the truth to these tweets that could clear the air. But it would also give Shellenberger the attention he wanted and possibly raise confusion within our own audience.
So taking into account these four contractual factors, who Mike Shellenberger is, EDF's Twitter persona and audience, EDF's stance on nuclear, and the consequences of engagement our strategy for addressing this Twitter rant was to do absolutely nothing. Shellenberger mentioned our Twitter account publicly and invited us to battle, and we ignored it, essentially doing something by doing nothing.
So the biggest lesson to learn from this is that context informs everything we do, whether it's on social media, in press releases, or in the court room, environmental organizations have to keep context in mind with every action and communication they undertake. So when faced with an invitation to battle, they must consider all contextual factors-- who their opponent is, who they want to be for their audience, their current position, and the consequences of engagement are not. This becomes complex as the organization grows, works with different groups, is followed by people with varying beliefs. But the right choice can be made when all the contextual factors are carefully examined. Thank you.
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Elizabeth Villedrouin presents on the Environmental Defense Fund, Austin, TX, as part of a series of TED talks for COMM 3080, "Capstone Course in Environmental & Sustainability Communication: From the Lab to the World."