And Keystone keeps trudging on … and on … and on …

For those of you interested in the Keystone XL pipeline, the following began as a snapshot-in-time update on the ongoing public relations war that the opposing sides of this issue continually fight every day. But then it devolved into a disjointed stream of consciousness that metaphorically captured the stagnant nature of this issue so well that I decided to keep it that way.

Advocates for building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil from the Alberta oil sands and North Dakota’s Bakken field to refineries along the gulf coast, got a major boost this week from former President George W. Bush … or maybe they didn’t. That depends on whether you think that the former president’s credibility has rehabbed enough in four years for him to make a difference.

Could the credibility of Pennsylvania’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection be any better? He declared in Forbes  this week that ongoing arrivals of oil by train from the Bakken would restore Philadelphia’s position as the primary U.S. energy hub … a title it last held when lamp oil and coal were among the city’s primary exports … during the Victorian era. The caveat, of course, is that those trains are unlikely to continue going to Philadelphia in such a high volume if Keystone is built. Regardless, it seems that the State of Pennsylvania is now a player on this issue.

Also, some guy in Texas is suing the U.S. federal government over something to do with building the part of the pipeline that is actually being built – the Oklahoma to Texas leg – if you care.

The fascination of Keystone XL is the lessons for issues management and communication that can be learned from its main storyline and numerous sub-plots. When the issue first came to light, it was about a pipeline company that wanted to bring Canadian and North Dakotan crude oil to the refineries on the gulf coast. They promised investment and jobs, and were willing to invest in getting that message to their key audiences. The opposition was worried about the possible impacts the issue would have on environmental habitats along the route. They too were willing to invest in their messages, and had requisite financial backing to do so. Because the pipeline would have to be built across an international border, the U.S. State Department (and hence, President Obama) also became a principle in the issue.

But where are any of the main principles now? A Google news search on the keywords “Keystone XL” returns stories that are spread across five different topics, from the previous four days, all on the first page of results. Reading through these articles reveals that central messages from the issue’s principles are scant. Instead are indirect messages about peripheral sub-issues, delivered by desperate surrogate messengers.

Message discipline is critically important when managing long-term issues. As time drags on, your opponents will seek to dilute your messages, discredit the people delivering your messages, and shift the focus onto peripheral messages that benefit their side of the argument. When this happens, it can be tempting to try to win every argument. But by engaging on a topic that is off message, you lose even when you win. It is imperative that such traps either be converted into opportunities to stay on message, or ignored. As it applies to Keystone XL, we’ll let the reader decide who is winning this one.

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