Edelman Oilsands Advice - Embarrassing and Wrong

It is often infuriating to see the advice that my PR colleagues are giving to compromised companies, but sometimes it’s just embarrassing.

Such was the case with the advice that Edelman Public Relations principal Richard Edelman was doling out to the tar sands industry this week. Edelman was quoted in the Vancouver Sun telling tar sands insiders at a conference in Alberta that they should start pushing their position on Facebook and Twitter.

“You have to go where the conversations are,” he said.

This is bad advice on so many counts.

First, Edelman is suggesting that developers of the Alberta tar sands, the second largest oil deposit on earth, have a public relations problem that can be cured with better communications.But the tar sand companies don’t have a “PR problem” - they have a toxic tailings pond that you can see from space and a gathering list of downstream cancer cases.

The tar sands development isn’t a PR problem. It’s the single largest point source of greenhouse gases in Canada. It’s a REAL problem and one that you won’t fix with snappy tactics or innovative advertising strategies.

But Edelman says:

“There is insufficient understanding of the benefits, there is insufficient understanding of the environmental protections, the opposition is defining you, and now is the time to act.”

I like the last clause. I have always believed that you are defined, not by your opposition, but by your actions. You get the reputation you deserve.

If there is “insufficient understanding of the environmental protections,” that might be because oil company guards patrol barbed-wire fences around their perimeter, refusing to let environmentalists - or even research scientists - study the devastated landscapes.

If Edelman finds “insufficient understanding of the benefits,” that may be because people are beginning to look at the purported benefits in relation to the environmental costs. The world climate faces an unprecedented threat - in response to which the Canadian government has given tar sands developers a free ride on carbon containment and the provincial government seems on the verge of a decision to lower royalty charges that are already among the cheapest in the developed world.

But the biggest objection I have to Edelman’s advice is that it just won’t work. First of all, if the tar sands companies stumble into interactive conversations in new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they will get bashed to bits. The reason the oil-patch giants prefer old media - mainstream media - is that all the communication is one way and it’s easy to dominate. Internet-based media sources - especially open-access ones like Facebook and Twitter - aren’t so easy to control.

This is especially true when industry is in the conversation. Every recent poll shows that corporations and corporate associations have even less credibility than politicians - while environmentalists like Canada’s David Suzuki are being identified as the most believable sources on issues like climate change.

And even if Edelman has a plan for gaming the major new media players - for allowing oil sands communicators an opportunity to speak without have to listen to the lively feedback that makes social media credible - they will not be able to stay, as Edelman says, “in the game.” Part of the reason that people have started searching for news and views in social media is that they recognize that mainstream sources have been compromised or corrupted. If, in this innovative age, the one-way PR players succeed in compromising Twitter or Facebook, the conversation will just move somewhere else.

I agree that there is a pressing PR problem in the climate conversation - and in the conversation about huge developments like the tar sands. PR practitioners like Edelman are encouraging companies to believe that they can succeed without changing. That’s a shorft-term solution, at best - and one that will lead the companies, the country and the world to an even greater crisis down the road.

It’s time that the senior players in firms like Edelman, APCO, Burson Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton figured that out. Until they do, they will BE the biggest part of the problem.



yeah - I agree that tarsands pr on interactive media will be a failure.

Tarsands opponents should probably hope that this bad advice is taken, which will give the tarsands issue greater exposure and possibly lead to some action. I wonder if there is any chance the US will eventually adopt a policy of accepting no tarsands derived oil. As it stands their policy is to triple tarsands imports over the next 20 years.

Shorter RickJames: We should hope that oil companies wreck our living environment so that the public can see that they’re wrecking our living environment. Woohoo!

That’s not how I read RickJames’ comment. He seemed to be inviting tarsand companies to blunder into the field (okay by me) and he pointed out the current US policy - which is to periodically talk tough about tarsand oil and then place bigger orders. I actually have caught Rick making sense a few times lately and think he should be encouraged.

About PR campaigns and Internet media, I blogged a while back ( http://wp.me/pexEg-hv ) about a document by the State Policy Network, a climate inactivist think-tank, titled “New Media Mania” ( http://www.webcitation.org/5cZjt4OFJ ).

To summarize, they recommend trying to control the content of their Internet sites as much as possible (because, they reason, “Content provision is the role of an independent think tank”); they also suggest that think-tanks should try to look as if they’re embracing the New Media ethos by making their sites _look_ interactive (instead of actually interacting with their audience).

This may explain why many climate ‘skeptic’ blogs and web sites either moderate their comments or disallow comments altogether (even as their fanboys complain incessantly about supposed “censorship” of their views on “warmist” blogs).

– bi, http://frankbi.wordpress.com/

Frank Bi wrote:To summarize, they recommend trying to control the content of their Internet sites as much as possible (because, they reason, “Content provision is the role of an independent think tank”); they also suggest that think-tanks should try to look as if they’re embracing the New Media ethos by making their sites _look_ interactive (instead of actually interacting with their audience).

I see what you mean:

“Because content provision is the role of the think tank, think tanks do not want to enter a world of users providing content in the sense the Wikipedia users do, such a world would make think tanks irrelevant in the provision of content just like encyclopedia editors now are However, the potential exists for the traditional content of think tanks to be presented in more interactive, personalized ways.”


Creating Interactive Websites for Think Tanks: Executive Summary
by David Seymour, Frontier Centre for Public Policy


Frontier Centre for Public Policy, who the above author is associated with according to the document itself, are apparently behind SPN (SPiN? - the State Policy Network). Frontier Centre for Public Policy is of course itself a think tank, one associated with the fossil fuel industry, and incidentally, along with “Friends of Science” (another denialist front organization / think tank) are funding the current blitz by Lord Christopher Monckton.

From Deep Climate’s blog:

“Now it turns out that Friends of Science has big plans for this fall (which, not so coincidentally, will likely see another Canadian federal election). The group is co-sponsoring, along with the [SourceWatch entry: http://deepclimate.org/2009/07/16/friends-of-science-theyre-back/ ]Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a cross-Canada speaking tour by none other than [SourceWatch entry: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Christopher_Monckton ]Lord Christopher Monckton, the “potty peer”. Also in the works is a cross-Canada “radio blitz” to promote [SourceWatch entry: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Friends_of_Science ] Friends of Science and its website.”


Friends of Science: They’re back!
July 16, 2009

The blitz by Monckton is being covered by Richard Littlemore here:

20 September 09
Monckton “Apocalypse” to Contaminate Canada