Documents obtained by Greenpeace detail a desperate astroturf PR strategy designed by Edelman for TransCanada to win public support for its Energy East tar sands export pipeline. TransCanada has failed for years to win approval of the controversial border-crossing Keystone XL pipeline, so apparently the company has decided to "win ugly or lose pretty" with an aggressive public relations attack on its opponents.
The Edelman strategy documents and work proposals outline a “grassroots advocacy” campaign plan to build support for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline as well as to undermine public opposition to oil and pipelines generally.
The documents should cause well-deserved embarrassment for Edelman, the largest PR company in the world, as well as TransCanada.
But this is not just a temporary black eye for a PR firm and its corporate client. The Edelman documents reveal a broader industry campaign to undermine the public interest and attack the oil industry’s critics across the board.
In one of the files, titled Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document, Edelman emphasizes that TransCanada would not be alone in adopting this kind of aggressive strategy.
The document notes the oil industry’s other extensive astroturf campaigns (including Edelman’s $52 million campaign for the American Petroleum Institute) to promote the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking, defeat climate legislation and attack renewable energy:
“Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Halliburton (and many more) have all made key investments in building permanent advocacy assets and programs to support their lobbying, outreach, and policy efforts. In launching a program like this, TransCanada will be in good company with a strong roadmap to follow.” (Grassroots Advocacy Vision p. 5-6)
The Edelman TransCanada documents once again confirm the fossil fuel industry’s desperate and expensive “permanent advocacy assets and programs” designed to attack grassroots organizers, nonprofits and charities, and ordinary citizens who are concerned about further fossil fuel infrastructure investments in an era of increasingly dangerous climate change.
The Globe and Mail, which broke the story of Edelman’s TransCanada plan, notes that the elaborate PR campaign plan is one more befitting the U.S. where aggressive PR has a longer history.
The Globe describes Edelman’s “reputation for aggressive tactics in the United States,” and quotes Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart expressing concern about TransCanada hiring Edelman’s services for "dirty tricks" PR:
“They’re bringing a much more aggressive, U.S.-style politics here,” Mr. Stewart said. “They’re employing pressure tactics that I would characterize as dirty tricks.”
But what I find particularly revealing about this story is how TransCanada has responded. From the Globe:
TransCanada spokesman James Millar said Monday the company learned valuable lessons in its battle over the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S., and is eager to enlist supporters and blunt the impact of opponents as the Energy East debate heats up. But he said it opted against pursuing some of Edelman’s more controversial proposals, such as quietly providing support to nominally independent pro-pipeline citizens’ groups.
TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline would ship 1.1 million barrels per day of tar sands and other western Canadian crude to refineries and export terminals along the Canadian Atlantic coast. The project faces stiff public opposition on both sides of the border, most significantly in Quebec.
Edelman isn’t coaching TransCanada on anything new in its PR arsenal. Most of the tactics described in the campaign plan originate with the PR industry’s lengthy and desperate efforts to protect the tobacco industry from accountability for its own dangerous product.
For example, the Edelman documents discuss efforts to put pressure on industry opponents by “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.”
Edelman suggests working with “supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can’t.”
As anyone familiar with the tobacco industry PR playbook knows, these buzzwords such as “supportive third parties” are old techniques designed to help companies that, like the tobacco industry, don’t have much credibility with the public.
The idea is to get “independent experts” and credible-sounding front groups like the “Global Climate Coalition” or the “Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide” to parrot your message and play defense on your behalf because the public doesn’t trust you. You’re an oil company that makes money off pollution. You have zero credibility. So you follow the shady PR advice, "Put your words in someone else's mouth."
"Think of this as an endless war"
The story of this dirty PR approach is sadly one with a long history. There are scores of books written on the subject, including Climate Cover-Up by DeSmog co-founder Jim Hoggan and Richard Littlemore.
Just last month, Richard Berman — known as “Dr Evil” for his many iniquitous public relations campaigns — was caught on tape coaching oil industry executives to “win ugly or lose pretty” and to “Think of this as an endless war…. And you have to budget for it.”
It seems the oil industry is content to continue pumping tens of millions of dollars into deceiving the public and attacking its critics with the help of notoriously sketchy PR companies.
Rather than do the right thing, this industry is clearly more interested in fighting dirty.
Read the Edelman TransCanada Energy East campaign documents:
• Energy East Campaign Organization: Promote, Respond Pressure (August 5, 2014)
• Digital Grassroots Advocacy Implementation Plan (May 20, 2014)
• Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document (May 15, 2014)
• Strategic Plan: Quebec (May 20, 2014)
• Research Synthesis (no date)
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