Tourists urged to boycott Alberta; U.S. billboards latest tactic in struggle over oilsands’ public image
Thu Jul 15 2010
Byline: Trish Audette
Source: Edmonton Journal, with files from Ryan Cormier
The oilsands public relations war heated up Wednesday, as billboards were unveiled in four major U.S. cities comparing Alberta oil production to the destruction caused by the Gulf oil spill.
The billboards in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis described the province as home to “the other oil disaster.”
The billboards feature pictures of a dead duck found in a Syncrude tailings pond and an oil-soaked pelican in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We think that actually in the end there’s no comparison. The tarsands are much worse,” Corporate Ethics director Michael Marx said.
Corporate Ethics International — partnered with a handful of organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and others — said Wednesday the billboards cost as much as $50,000.
The price tag for the whole “Rethink Alberta” campaign, which includes a hefty Internet presence and promises to take the campaign to potential tourists in Europe and perhaps Asia, was kept under wraps.
“I can tell you it’s substantial. We have major funding for this effort and a commitment for multiple years,” Marx said.
“I think we have all been caught off -guard by the scope of anti-oil campaigns, that these are international campaigns,” said Janet Annesley, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
In the past six months, her organization has changed its communications strategy, buying ads in national newspapers, magazines and on television to tell Canadians about how the oil industry is trying to lessen its environmental impact.
“The attacks on the oilsands are attacks on the industry, not necessarily attacks on individual companies. So it’s incumbent on the industry association to step up, and be more visible,” Annesley said.
“Just as a lot of the NGOs and the environmental activists … don’t disclose to the news media what their costs are, we are not disclosing ours.”
Marx said Wednesday that Premier Ed Stelmach’s 2008 promise to spend millions to improve its image was seen as a challenge by environmental groups.
“The government was very clear about the fact that it was setting aside $25 million to rebrand itself, partially in response to the negative image that it was gaining as a result of the tarsands,” Marx said.
“Our role is really to expose the inconvenient truth about the social and environmental irresponsibility of corporations, and now of this province, and see how it affects their brand.”
In Calgary on Wednesday, Stelmach defended the province. “We absolutely will fight back through promoting Alberta’s story using accurate information.”
While industry and government offi cials painted the Corporate Ethics campaign as misleading, Stelmach said the province has no plans to pursue any court action against the environmental group. He said court proceedings would “give them $5-million worth of media.”
Although fewer than 500,000 Americans visit Alberta’s biggest attractions each year, people in the tourism industry are taking the billboard and Rethink Alberta campaign seriously.
“They’re painting the province with a black brush,” said Ken Fiske, vice-president of tourism and marketing for the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.
“Will it affect business? Absolutely. There’s no question it’s part of our market and for all of Alberta, it’s a pretty big issue.”
Travel Alberta spokesman Don Boynton said the Corporate Ethics campaign could affect the thousands of Albertans employed as tour operators, hotel workers and elsewhere in the tourism sector.
“This flies in the face of what tourism and travel is all about,” he said.
“People want to connect with Canadians and witness our culture and environment. People who want to advocate for a particular cause, it’s incongruent with allowing people to understand what we do with our environment and why we’re a good destination.”
But Boynton said previous attempts to tie tourism to political issues have failed.
Tourism Minister Cindy Ady said she was disappointed by the advertising campaign, but she said it is difficult to guess what impact the ads will have.
“Obviously, you never want somebody to strike at you like this. That being said, will it really work? We’ve had it before, and … we’ve just gone on,” she said.
She noted Travel Alberta spends about $50 million a year promoting the province. “I can show you pictures of Alberta that will just counter that message instantly,” she said of the Rethink Alberta campaign photographs, which also include a picture of a pipe spewing brown liquid into a tailings pond.
“I just think Albertans are going to be bothered by this. They’re going to say, ‘This is a beautiful place,’ and feel under attack by others.”
In the next couple weeks, similar billboard advertisements are expected to go up in the United Kingdom, Marx said. And the organization plans an online ad campaign that would ensure people outside Canada who use Google to find out more about Alberta’s tourism destinations would come across the Rethink Alberta ads.
The ultimate goal of the campaign is to end expansion of the oilsands.
The Corporate Ethics billboards are not the only spotlight on Alberta’s environmental record this week.
In the United States, legislators continue to take aim at the expansion of a bitumen-carrying Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta through the Midwest.
Today, a legal co-operative supporting the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is expected to release a report showing woodland caribou face potential extinction because of oilsands development in northeastern Alberta.