"Rethink Alberta" Market Campaign Could Help Spur Changes To Oil Sands Industry

As a media relations professional, I'm often the first point of contact between an environmental campaign and the news media. This past week I did some media outreach for the new "Rethink Alberta" campaign by Corporate Ethics, and early on in my calls to reporters, I knew this campaign was going to do more than just make a colourful PR splash. This was a market campaign with real teeth, and reporters could sense that.

A market campaign, as originally pioneered by environmental groups like ForestEthics and Greenpeace, is more than just a boycott. It's an active effort (often over multiple years) to inflict brand damage and economic pressure on an entity (company, government or otherwise) that is harming the environment and to articulate alternative forms of development while pushing the entity towards them (admittedly the ENGO community needs to do a better job of articulating what the future should look like for the oil sands industry).

In the case of the "Rethink Alberta" campaign, the strategy is to put pressure on more than one provincial industry (so in addition to oil sands, tourism) and to cleave the two apart while also creating new economic and social consequences for unchecked oil sands development.  Markets and the opinions of publics and key decision makers in other parts of the world are leveraged, and local voters are alerted to the changing economic environment and global perceptions of the place they call home. Clear lines of blame are drawn and the likelihood of political consequences is heightened.

In today's ubiquitously connected world, a little goes a long way, and so even a modestly funded campaign can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of earned media, and can spark conversations across a continent. Such has been the case with the "Rethink Alberta" campaign and that's precisely why media commentary has shifted from coverage of the campaign as a PR stunt, to more of a wake-up call to the industry and provincial government that the status quo is ultimately untenable.

From the Wall Street Journal to Reuters and every provincial news outlet in Alberta, this story and its damaging message is painting the province as an undesirable place to visit, a place where great environmental damage is being wrought with wanton abandon. That's a message that stays with readers and viewers (even dormantly for years), and it's a message with economic clout that appears to be pushing industry and political groups to talk about real efforts to clean-up the oil sands.

In a recent Vancouver Sun article titled, "Influential council calls for 'dramatic gesture' to counter bad oil sands P.R," various political and industry experts, including the president of Total E&P Canada are emphasizing the importance of not just fighting PR with more PR, but of the importance of actually doing something to clean-up the industry.

To quote the Vancouver Sun article:

Total E&P Canada president Jean-Michel Gires acknowledged that organizations attacking the oilsands are dangerous to the energy sector, noting their message has caught the ear of decision-makers in Washington, London and other parts of the world.

"They ask, 'Is it a big problem? Are you concerned? Why don't you pay more attention to the environment? Are you going to stop the development of the oilsands?' " he said.

"You definitely need to listen, understand and explain much better your case, tell much better your story, and understand that your story can be improved."

The story can be improved.

During my media outreach, I had a conversation with a publisher in Alberta who took umbrage with the "Rethink Alberta" campaign message. He felt that maligning Alberta's oil sands would push the US to purchase oil from hostile countries. After moving beyond that tired rhetorical threat (which is oft repeated by the Alberta government) we had a conversation about what Alberta should and could be doing in terms of cleaning up its wet tailings ponds, slowing down the rate of production and emissions to something commensurate with what climate science says is safe, and ultimately establishing a royalty system that will actually benefit Albertans.

Norway, who's petro industry is now winding down because of dwindling supplies, has a pension plan worth approximately $443 billion dollars because they took their fair share of resource revenues when they could. What's Alberta's plan when the resource has been extracted and burned in 100 years time, as the industry's own "business as usual" scenario would have it? What will the province have to show for all the negative branding it will have endured? Who will be left with the clean-up bill? Would it be better to slow things down and clean them up now, extending and maximizing the value of the resource over the long term?

My originally hostile friend was acutely aware of all these possibilities and necessities and expressed great frustration with what he saw as his government's total mismanagement of the oil sands. He agreed that his province needed to do better.

If one of the other Alberta opposition parties can articulate a plan to sustainably manage Alberta's oil sands, they'll hit political gold. Albertans are proud of their province, but they're not proud of their government's management of the oil sands. They feel they're being let down, and they're starting to get pissed off (a market campaign helps coalesce frustration and anger).

In the mean time, market campaigns like "Rethink Alberta" will put increasing pressure on the province, helping to fuel real debate and discussion until somebody decides to do the right thing.