Federal government prepares $24-million oilsands advertising blitz

By Alex Boutilier, Postmedia News October 10, 2013

OTTAWA – The federal Conservatives hope to counter “intense and sustained public relations campaigns” against Alberta’s oilsands with a $24-million international advertising blitz.

The two-year ad campaign will target political and business leaders, as well as media organizations and domestic political advocates in the United States, Europe and Asia.  According to a request for proposals issued by Natural Resources Canada, the government believes domestic and international campaigns against the oilsands are partly to blame for proposed regulations that “unfairly target the oil sands” in the U.S. and Europe.

The document specifically references California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Section 526 of the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, and Europe’s Fuel Quality Directive as proposals based on “preconceived notions about the oil sands that are not supported by science.”

“Canada has been, and continues to be, the target of intense and sustained public relations campaigns by domestic and international organizations, criticizing our domestic natural resource development policies and companies engaged in resource developments,” the NRCan document reads. “These campaigns have resulted in inaccurate information becoming part of the public debate.”

The government intends to contract the advertising campaign to an agency to provide “rapid response” and proactive public and media campaigns through both traditional and social media. The agency would be expected to develop a specialized website for “C-class” business leaders – CEOs and CFOs – and secure advertising placement on the internet and public places such as billboards. “Earned media” – which basically means news media coverage of the campaign – also figures in the strategy.

The department’s planned messaging highlights an “enhanced regulatory system” and Canada’s commitment to safeguard the environment, as well as “unparalleled” investment opportunities in the natural resource sector.

“Canada is a world leader in the responsible development of natural resources,” one planned talking point reads. “Canada is a stable and secure energy choice compared to international alternatives.”

The short-term objective of the campaign is to draw people to a new website – travel.gc.ca is cited as an example – that provides more information on Canada’s natural resource sector and investment opportunities, and increase meetings with business people.

The long-term goal, according to the department’s plan, is to increase direct foreign investments in the Canadian natural resources sector.

“This campaign will raise awareness in key international markets that Canada is a secure and reliable supplier of natural resources,” department spokesperson Jacinthe Perras said in an email.

The PR push comes at a time when the federal Conservatives are having a tough time selling the Keystone XL pipeline, which has met opposition from environmental groups on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, and as it grapples with Europe’s proposal for a fuel quality directive.

Canada maintains the proposed fuel directive is a discriminatory and non-scientific approach that singles out oilsands as having higher carbon emissions than other sources, without any sound studies examining the greenhouse gases from the conventional oil the EU actually imports.

Canada has previously threatened to launch a trade war with the European Union and take the fuel proposal to the World Trade Organization if it is passed.

An independent assessment commissioned by the Harper government, analyzing the carbon content of European fuels, was due back in late September. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has promised to release the findings in the coming weeks.

The government wants to use the data in the report to support its case about how oilsands-derived fuels fare against those from Europe.

Peter Julian, the New Democrats’ energy and natural resources critic, said he does not expect the advertising campaign to change many minds about Canada’s environmental record abroad.

“The Harper government has a PR problem, because they haven’t taken action on the oil sands (and) put in place measures that ensure polluters pay, ensure we have safe pipelines, ensuring that we are lessening as much as possible the impact in that region in Alberta,” Julian said. “Because we’re not seeing action from the Harper government, there’s a negative perception of Canada as a whole … Advertising is not going to change that.”

Foreign Service officers are expected to be consulted in targeted countries, and feedback will be collected at embassies and missions across the world. The government is also considering issuing another contract for public opinion research on the campaign.

The $24-million pricetag makes it the costliest advertising campaign NRCan has undertaken in recent years. The department spent just $5.25 million in advertising buys in 2011-2012.

The new advertisements are expected to be rolled out in at least one international jurisdiction by January 2014, with the full campaign in place by April 2014.

– With a file from Jason Fekete, Postmedia News.

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