“Spread doubt about your opponents” is a common strategy recommendation for clients guaranteed to stir up controversy, but that fact doesn’t diminish the effect of the internal Edelman documents that Greenpeace leaked to The New York Times and Canada’s CBC News yesterday.
For reference, Edelman represents TransCanada, one of the companies behind the pending political fistfight better known as the Keystone XL Pipeline. This story concerns a different project called Energy East, which would transform a natural gas pipeline into one equipped to carry more than a million gallons of crude oil across Canada each day. The project, if completed, would also allow for easier exports to the United States.
The docs essentially suggest that TransCanada should do the very same thing other political advocacy groups do: uncover unflattering information about its ideological opponents and leak it to friendly news outlets without placing its own name anywhere in subsequent reports.
Here’s a key statement of purpose quote:
“We cannot allow opponents to have a free pass. To make an informed decision on this project, Canadians need to have a true picture of the motivations not only of the project proponents, but of its opponents as well.”
We don’t think we’re going out too far on any limb when we say that the pipeline’s proponents want to make money and further their business objectives, while its opponents believe that the project’s environmental risks outweigh its economic benefits. Does every single individual campaigning against Energy East have motivations as pure as the fur on a baby seal? Almost certainly not.
Still, the language makes this back-and-forth sound like a military engagement, calling it “…a perpetual campaign to protect and enhance the value of the Energy East Pipeline.”
This advice mirrors that given by political consultant Richard Berman of Berman and Company. Earlier this month, the NYT reported that Berman told energy executives to “dig up dirt” on environmentalists and their celebrity supporters as part of the “endless war” around the controversial practice of fracking.
From the CBC Canada report, the idea in this case was that any messages delivered by TransCanada employees would lack credibility among the public, because “trotting out company executives with briefcases is no way to win supporters for Energy East.” For the record, a TransCanada spokesman told the NYT:
“TransCanada…rejected Edelman’s recommendation of using third parties in a campaign against opponents.”
In terms of appearances, this news is nowhere near as bad as an Uber SVP’s suggestion that the organization pay researchers to uncover personal information on journalists and their families.
But discrediting the opposition is a common practice in both politics and public relations: in September, the author of a book criticizing Ecuador’s legal claims against energy giant Chevron shared details from a Ketchum document suggesting that the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States raise doubts among friendly media contacts about whether he had ever visited the country (he told us that he visited twice).
It’s worth noting, on the ethical front, that Edelman also represents the American Petroleum Institute despite joining a coalition of large firms that promised The Guardian that they would not actively promote climate change “deniers.” More than a year ago, another Edelman executive got negative press coverage for telling coal executives to suggest that increased coal exports would have no effect on climate change. One can claim that API is not a “denier” because its documents indicate that its own products “may be helping to warm our planet” (key word MAY). But any claims that API and other industry groups actively support public efforts to combat climate change are simply not believable.
To an unfamiliar public, a major PR firm stands for whatever its clients stand for…otherwise it would not choose to work with those clients. Some executives do make a point of only representing “green” clients just as some only represent those on one side of the political aisle — but their firms, for the most part, are nowhere near as big as those involved in stories like this one.
In case you were curious, the chances of the XL Pipeline being approved by Congress just dropped to “slim” with Independent Alaska Senator Angus King’s announcement that he would vote no. King said:
“Congress is not – nor should it be – in the business of legislating the approval or disapproval of a construction project.”
Maybe not. But the fight is coming, and it won’t be pretty.