Sunday, November 11, 2012

What is most important to outreach? Just showing up.

In my prior wrap-up over the Chattanooga MOX hearing, one of the key takeaway lessons for nuclear outreach I found while helping to organize students attending the NNSA hearing on surplus weapons-grade plutonium disposition in MOX fuel is this: Showing up matters.

In fact, there's an old Woody Allen quote circulating around which summarizes this best:
80% of success is just showing up.
In a later interview, Allen would extend upon his prior quip:
I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.
Why bring all of this up again? Namely because I think a recent outreach case organized by Meredith Angwin (of Yes Vermont Yankee) and Howard Shaffer at a recent public hearing in support of the Vermont Yankee reactor so perfectly reinforces this point. Angwin and Shaffer managed to organize a crowd of supporters of the plant for a public hearing on its renewal for a Certificate of Public Good (required for the plant to continue to do business in the state - this in spite of the fact that the actual safety license to operate is controlled exclusively by the NRC). In fact, they managed to do this and then some, with supporters outnumbering opponents three-to-one.

The result? News coverage of the event represents their side and their message in addition to the opponents. They (VY supporters) controlled the tone of the meeting, keeping it civil and respectful. (This is in marked contrast to some meetings where Angwin reports being hopelessly outnumbered - and thus where the tone is decidedly different).

The exact same thing was seen when one contrasts the meeting coverage of NNSA hearings in Chattanooga versus meetings later that week in Decatur, AL (closer to the Brown's Ferry reactor, a TVA candidate site for MOX). With nuclear supporters absent, the "public" consisted of professional anti-nuclear activists going from meeting to meeting repeating the same (debunked) arguments. (Notice that certain individuals, like Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, show up multiple times). The tone of the stories reflects the absence of supporters - as a result, opponents have the narrative to themselves - they are the public. When supporters were present (as in Chattanooga), it is reported as "spirited debate" - the existence of a pro-nuclear side is acknowledged.

In other words, the media won't come find you if you're not there. What makes up much of reporting, particularly at the local level like this, is storytelling. When one side is absent, their story doesn't get told. Reporters aren't going to seek it out - in fact, they're unlikely to even acknowledge its existence. This is why showing up matters so much. Ultimately, the way most of the public will learn about issues like MOX (or Vermont Yankee, etc.) will not be through direct contact with opponents or supporters, but rather through reported accounts in the media - which means if one side doesn't show up, the public simply will not know about it. It's simply not part of the narrative.

As an aside, I am currently at the ANS Winter Meeting in San Diego, CA - do say hello if you catch me sometime while I'm there. (I already had the pleasure of meeting Will Davis of Atomic Power Review for the first time last night, and I'm hoping to run into more folks from the online community). This probably explains my itching to emphasize the importance of outreach so much, of course - namely because I'm also going to be talking about some of these same important lessons with other nuclear professionals while I'm here.