Poll: National Geographic vs. Alberta oil sands

March 8, 2009

This post below received quite a few visits since it got posted a few hours ago. This looks like a good opportunity for a little poll. So read the post and vote if you are so inclined.



National Geographic and the oilsands: what the heck are they complaining about in Calgary?

March 8, 2009

I’ve been scratching my head for a few days now, trying to make sense of the uproar out West about the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine. The venerable yellow-framed publication, famous for the quality of its pictures and focus on conservation, ran a 20-page section on Alberta’s ‘oilsands’. It illustrates the dark side of the sand operations – you know, the scoured landscape, the sick people, the dead birds, the complete lack of restraint from the industry.

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

Gary Lamphier in the Edmonton Journal denounces it as eco-propaganda. Predictably, the National Post is outraged. Biased, soft-handed tree-huggers from New York, don’t they know they need Canadian oil to drive from their country home to their Manhattan office?

But reading the magazine made me wonder why the heck they are complaining about.

Sure, a text in National Geographic about the oilsands would be cause to send Cheryl Rubb at Syncrude’s media relations service into a panic. But as it turns out, the oil patch, as well as the Alberta government, have plenty of reasons to rejoice: even a cursory reading of the magazine’s text shows that it contains all the messages they’ve been trying to get through to Americans for years:

  • Canada is America’s no. 1 oil supplier and has reserves greater than Saudi Arabia’s.
  • Canadian oil is the best way to reduce America’s dependency on oil from the Middle-East.
  • Alberta’s oilsands are open for business: it’s full steam ahead and development will not slow down.
  • Extraction even of the deeper oil is plenty profitable.
  • In the grand scheme of things, the oilsands’ carbon footprint is negligible and First Nations are seeing this as an opportunity.

As for the environmental aspect of the oilsands, the text makes it clear that it’s a Canadian problem that has no impact on the U.S. Canada wants to turn part of their own countryside into a hellish hellhole to pump oil south of the border. It’s their business.

I’m sure the oil patch’s PR wizards see it that way, if they have any wits. Curiously, it’s the newsroom hacks who get blinded by rage. Lamphier can’t even get past the pictures:

“No one reads National Geographic. Like Playboy, it’s all about the pictures. And you can bet that everyone from Al Gore to David Suzuki to the righteous folks at Greenpeace will be using the magazine’s grim photos to convince the pliable masses, and U.S. politicians, that the oilsands are indeed the world’s greatest eco-disaster.”

Right. Apparently publishers have a responsibility not only to be balanced, but also not to publish pictures that could be used to support a public relations campaign. Interesting how the ethics of journalism shift with who is doing the spinning.

If Lamphier and the National Post editorial board like to pretend American public opinion is ripe for an eco-crusade involving oil production right now, it’s fine. After all, we’re used to frequent high-pitched whining from either of those sources. But nobody should think their outrage has anything to do with reality.

POLL UPDATE: What do you think? Take the poll!


Government of Canada wins award at important environment conference

December 8, 2008

While the Canadian Parliament lockout continues, Environment Minister Jim Prentice is in Poznan (Poland), spinning his way through the latest round of negotiations on climate change. Canada was awarded a Fossil of the Day Award (2nd place) on Friday, for aggressive back-pedalling on its commitments. Unfortunately, Mr. Prentice couldn’t make it to the awards ceremony…

Way to go, Minister Prentice. Let’s assume this is only the first of a long list of awards you plan to earn as Canada’s new Environment Minister.


Only the truth can be embellished

November 24, 2008

The above is what one of my PR teachers used to say back in university, when he felt the need to explain to us PR professionals do not lie. For some reason, he felt he had to repeat his mantra almost every class.

I was reminded of that teacher and his desperate attempts at finding some moral ground for our profession to stand on when I read this CBC report on tar sands carbon sequestration.

So yes, there are ways to capture carbon from tar sands extraction so that it doesn’t get released into the atmosphere. The technology exists and can be improved. It’s the truth.

Except the truth has been embellished in a monstrous way. It turns out that according to the government scientists working on carbon capture, the method is very inefficient, at least when applied to the tar sands. It’s only possible to treat a small proportion of the carbon. That will continue to be the case even after governments spend $2.5 billion to improve the technology.

It’s simple arithmetic: when you treat only a small fraction of the emissions, it doesn’t matter much if your treatment is 20% or 100% effective. It’s like trying to cure a bad case of cancer by using a really good treatment, but only on the patient’s feet.

No matter. Somebody decided the government would focus on carbon capture as the way to go to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change. So government communicators have been pushing carbon sequestration as a way to address our little flatulence problem while we keep drilling and pumping. Or in the case of the tar sands: digging, trucking, rinsing, heating, pressurizing, emitting, spilling … and spinning.

The whole thing raises interesting policy questions, which I will leave to other blogs to address. This here blog is only concerned about public relations. So here’s the question I should have asked my teacher back then:

How much can truth be embellished before it becomes a lie?


Government report outed by blogger

August 21, 2008

Readers of this blog might remember how disgusted I was when the government buried its how report on the vulnerability of Canadians to climate change. Even worse, the document is only available on request, one chapter at a time if you want it by email.

On its front page this morning, the Ottawa Citizen points out that one blogger went further than just getting pissed: “Miguel Tremblay” at ptaff.ca got all the chapters sent to him, assembled them all nice and tight (even in conformity with the federal government’s electronic document naming conventions, s’il-vous-plaît) and posted the whole thing on his blog, in both languages.

Health Canada’s chief flack’s excuse that the document is too large to put on the web doesn’t fly. There’s plenty of large reports on government sites, including one just as large right here (see “The power of volunteers” report). Breaking it down in more manageable chunks was also an option.


The Liberals’ leaky blabbers strike again

August 7, 2008

This from this morning’s Globe:

“At the last strategy meeting a couple of months ago, one insider said Mr. Dion spent more than an hour trying to explain his environmental plan, which was so complicated even his top aides had trouble understanding it. Some Liberals feel that if it’s too difficult to sell in 30 seconds at the door, voters will tune out.”

What is it with Liberal “strategists”, can’t they keep their mouth shut? Have they all been infected with the “ahah, I know something you don’t” virus? No blabber control.

UPDATE: Okay, I’ve got 22 hits on this post in the last 7 hours, which is way more than my little PR blog usually gets (except for this post of course). Who’s telling their friends to come and see, angry Liberals or giggling Tories? Don’t be shy to post comments, I approve anything that isn’t offensive (and some that is slightly offensive) and I don’t check your IP addresses.


Ugly PR, ugly journalism

August 5, 2008

I like to watch a well-executed astroturf campaign just as much as the average flack (okay – even more than the average flack) but this is grotesque. American politicians who are working to reduce the effect of climate change are out to hurt the poor? What?

It’s no coincidence that Stop the War on the Poor is getting active just as the American Presidential contest is heating up (pardon the pun). It’s no coincidence either that the group is managed by a Republican PR firm that received a huge contract to push for oil drilling in Alaska.

Judging from this front-page text, the National Post desk decided that since there’s a war on, journalism must be set aside in the name of the defence of national interests. Which of course, means oil sands development.

It’s ugly PR, ugly journalism.