Canadian oil and gas companies are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to winning public support.
They're adopting American-style grassroots marketing tactics, according to political scientist Adam Harmes. The shift is part of a growing trend toward “campaign-style advocacy” and “business-sponsored grassroots lobbying.”
Harmes, a professor at Western University, presented his research at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary this week, describing how oil and gas companies were engaged in a “ground war” using “paid, earned and social media” and professional political consultants to gain social license for projects.
“It’s this weird chain of events where marketing techniques that were used to sell products were (then) adopted by political parties in order to sell candidates and policies,” Harmes said. “Then they were further innovated in the political world. Now those techniques have been brought back to the business world to be used in lobbying campaigns.”
It's increasingly sophisticated paid advertising, Harmes says
These movements — which Harmes calls “subsidized publics” — differ from organic grassroots movements or manufactured ones by blending elements of the two. Advocacy organizations designed to push an established agenda by corporations, they look and feel like grassroots organizations because they tap into existing political sentiment among a certain group of people.
They use social media campaigns to collect data and create “supporter progression models,” which Harmes says move subscribers to ever-more active forms of support, often using localized advertising to target specific markets.
“We see increasingly sophisticated paid advertisements based on a segmenting of the voters and based on market research. This means we’re seeing increasing customization of messages, whether it’s [asking] ‘what are the benefits of the oil sands to Ontario or to the east coast?’ or, in the case of pipelines, they’ll ask ‘what are the specific issues in the local communities on the route of the pipeline?’,” Harmes said. “They’ll research those and customize messages directly for them.”
Edelman's TransCanada plan went sour
Harmes detailed the way oil companies generate support through entities like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). A 2010 CAPP ad campaign, for instance, included regionally customized messages using employees. Oil sector marketing initiatives found employees are more trusted spokespeople than CEOs. Their testimonials spoken before a backdrop of lush, forested areas are effective sales tools.
Harmes said Alberta-based TransCanada Corp. has employed grassroots mobilization campaigns. The energy company hired U.S.-based public relations firm Edelman to promote the proposed Energy East pipeline.
Edelman’s “grassroots mobilization plan” provided a document that outlined how “deploy a methodical and deliberate approach” used to “convert average citizens into ‘issue activists.’” The partnership went sour and dissolved when environmental groups obtained leaked copies of the controversial plan and shared it with the media.
“First, we recruit an individual to formally join our cause. Second, we provide enough information with emotional appeal to engage him or her and solidify their commitment to our cause. And third, we mobilize that individual to take action when requested,” Harmes said, reading from the document.
“We must also understand how to deepen and broaden each individual’s commitment to our cause using targeted messaging and behaviour tracking to directly appeal to the individual’s trigger points and develop them from a supporter to an activist to a champion. We refer to this as our ‘stakeholder progression model.’”
The documents also suggested that TransCanada should attack their opponents using third parties - tactics TransCanada denied it employed at the time.
According to the Canadian Press, Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada said companies like TransCanada employing these kinds of tactics are going to “face a skeptical public.”
“We want to see a different approach, not just a different PR company,” Stewart said in 2014. “How the debate is conducted is always important to the substance of the debate.”