Sorry Enbridge, PR spin won’t change our minds

Enbridge has a credibility problem. That's probably why they've invested in a $5 million ad campaign assuring the audience that the company's oil pipeline and supertanker project is "more than a pipeline, it's a path to our future."

If you live in British Columbia there’s a good chance that by now you’ve seen the new Enbridge television advertisements; the warm and fuzzy cartoon animation with the soothing soundtrack and the family strolling down what looks like the yellow brick road, overlaid by a saccharine narration assuring the audience that the company’s oil pipeline and supertanker project is “more than a pipeline, it’s a path to our future.”

Actually it’s all part of a pacification campaign Enbridge has launched in an attempt to qualm the legitimate and substantive concerns British Columbians have around the prospect of some 225 oil tankers, carrying oilsands crude from Alberta, annually navigating the narrow, rocky channels and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest and pipelines crossing over 1,000 streams and rivers.

While launching the $5 million ad campaign, Enbridge spokesperson Paul Stanway said, “It’s fair to say the opposition has firmed up in the last year” and “It’s become quite apparent that the debate has become a province-wide issue.” That’s code for “we’re losing ground and we know it.” To put things in perspective, the Dogwood Initiative (a B.C. based NGO which employs one of the authors of this article) has spent less money in their entire 13 years of existence than Enbridge is spending on their latest ad blitz.

Enbridge has a credibility problem. They’re an oil pipeline company. They’re out for themselves and people know that. According to a Polaris Institute report, they spill oil 60 times a year on average, including a three million litre oil spill into the Kalamazoo River, in Michigan, two summers ago. As such, Enbridge has enlisted the multinational public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to help sell British Columbians on the Northern Gateway pipeline and supertanker project.

With 50 offices in 20 countries and affiliations with more than 70 associate companies, Hill and Knowlton is one of the world’s largest public relations firms. Hiring Hill and Knowlton speaks volumes about the lengths to which Enbridge will apparently go to persuade the B.C. public that supertankers and oilsands pipelines are a good thing for our province.

British journalist George Monbiot, of The Guardiandescribes Hill and Knowlton as “the public relations company famous for the unsavoury nature of its clients.” Monbiot points out that Hill and Knowlton “advised the Chinese government in the wake of the Tianenmen massacre, set up lobby groups for the tobacco companies and coached the girl who told the false story about Kuwaiti babies being thrown out of incubators, which helped to launch the first Gulf war.”

According to Spin Watch, “The firm helped in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident” and “has worked for governments with appalling human rights records, including Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco.”

Source Watch states that “Phony Earth First! flyers and press releases calling for violence during Redwood Summer were traced to PR giant Hill and Knowlton by San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse,” at the height of the campaign to prevent California’s old growth redwood forests from being clearcut by Pacific Lumber Company.

Hill and Knowlton was also hired by the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association several years ago to help convince British Columbians that open net cage fish farms were not a threat to our province’s wild salmon stocks. In B.C., you would think Enbridge would have learned from the salmon farming industry that hiring expensive multinational PR companies does not make for better environmental practices, but only increases public suspicion of industries already suffering from a lack of trust.

The fact that Enbridge has enlisted Hill and Knowlton is not surprising, given the track record of collaboration. As the Globe and Mail reported in July 2010, as part of an effort to “restore its reputation” Enbridge hired Hill and Knowlton to “provide communications advice” after the Kalamazoo River spill. Given the harsh criticism leveled in the just released review of the Enbridge pipeline rupture in Michigan by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, all that “reputation recovery management,” as they say in PR speak, has probably gone for naught.

What is remarkable is that Enbridge has engaged the services of Hill and Knowlton before the Northern Gateway project has even completed the regulatory review process — this attempt to buy British Columbians’ approval is an indication of desperation by a company that, despite having a massive war chest at their disposal, just can’t win public approval in our province.

In the past year, Enbridge has lost key local governments in the province’s north such as Terrace, Smithers and Prince Rupert, who now formally oppose the company’s proposal. And they have attracted the opposition of southern local governments in politically important areas, the province-wide Union of B.C. Municipalities and the B.C. NDP.

Enbridge says their hope for the ad campaign is to “help British Columbians understand what the project is about,” but being unable to change the fact oil spills happen all the time and pipelines simply don’t create long-term jobs means they will continue to face an impenetrable wall in B.C. — now they’re just $5-million poorer.

A version of this article was previously published in the Nanaimo Daily News, and at The Huffington Post on July 10, 2012.

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