A recent New York Times report notes that Growth Energy, an ethanol advocacy group, has blanketed the subway station closest to the U.S. Capitol with ads saying “No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills” and calling ethanol “America’s clean fuel.” The article goes on to dispute that claim with a pile of data, including this nugget:
Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs from the U.S. Corn Belt are key contributors to “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. A 2008 study by independent researchers, published in the [National Academy of Sciences'] Proceedings journal, calculated that increasing corn production to meet the 2007 renewable fuels target would add to nitrogen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico by 10 to 34 percent.
Thus the ads violate at least two key credibility factors: full accuracy, not just technical correctness (beaches may not have been closed due to spills, but normal production has polluted coastal waters), and claims that are consistent with actions. (For more, see the Thinkshift Credibility Quotient™ fact sheet.) Most clean energy options have some sort of downside, and you know the old saying: if you’re a pot, don’t call the kettle black.
I can’t speak to Growth Energy’s intentions, but even the most ethical organizations sometimes fall into the bad comparison trap: seizing on current news to draw attention to your benefits is smart communications, but you have to make sure any comparisons you make will stand up to scrutiny. This may sound like an obvious point, but true believers often become blind to their solution’s downsides. Skeptics, on the other hand, will see them in high def.