by Joyce Nelson
Enbridge public relations (PR)advisor Hill + Knowlton Strategies (H+K) has become the butt of jokes because of those wildly distorting animation maps for the Northern Gateway pipeline/tanker route and its bungled handling of Enbridge’s 2010 Kalamazoo disaster. But while TV viewers laugh at the tagline – “It’s more than a pipeline, it’s our path to the future” – H+K is ably earning its multimillion-dollar fees from Enbridge and other energy clients through its skill in government relations alone.
Michael Coates, Canadian CEO and Chair of H+K, is reportedly well-regarded by the Harper government, having
personally helped Stephen Harper with election debate preparation in 2004, 2006, and 2008. According to The Hill Times (Jan. 2012), Coates “sat out the last election campaign  because of the federal lobbying commissioner’s ruling that getting involved may pose a conflict of interest;” but Coates “remains connected to the Conservative Party and has the government’s ear.” Andrew MacDougall, formerly with H+K, is now Harper’s top spokesman.
The revolving door has been useful to the company. In June 2012, H+K hired consultant Stephen Carter (Alison Redford’s former chief of staff) to be the PR firm’s national director of campaign strategy, focusing on infrastructure and oil and gas issues. In 2012, Carter had led Redford’s successful leadership bid and campaign to become Alberta premier.
In October 2012, Carter (by then working for H+K) was invited to speak behind closed doors at the BC Liberal party convention, advising delegates and Premier Christy Clark on campaign strategy for the upcoming provincial election. In November 2012, H+K hired Brad Lavigne, former principle secretary to the NDP’s Jack Layton, as vice-president of public affairs.
Less well-known is the fact that Peter Kent, the current federal Environment Minister, worked for H+K before entering electoral politics.
Another Ethical Oiler
As reported by PR tracking website PubZone.com (Aug. 25, 2008), sometime in the summer of 2008, Peter Kent was hired as a vice-president at H+K, where he “will focus on strategic client planning, leadership training and senior media relations support.” Kent has an extensive background with various news organizations, such as CTV, Global, CBC, and NBC. As the now defunct PubZone.com reported, “In addition to his new role at Hill and Knowlton, Kent will continue to stand as the Conservative Party of Canada candidate in Thornhill [Ont.] for the next federal election.”
Kent won his riding in that 2008 election. As far as I can determine, only one other media outlet has ever mentioned Kent’s connection to H+K. In a puff piece about Kent’s home in Toronto, the Toronto Star (Nov. 1, 2008) noted: “The recently elected Conservative MP for Thornhill and former vice-president of corporate communications for the strategic communications company Hill and Knowlton owns a home in Cabbagetown.”
After Jim Prentice suddenly resigned from federal politics in December 2010, Harper appointed Peter Kent as the new Minister of the Environment as of January 2011. Within hours of his appointment, Kent was endorsing “ethical oil” from the tarsands, and he told CTV (Jan. 9, 2011) that the tar sands have been the target of “slander and disinformation and outright lies … I’m not going to stand by while outsiders slander Canada, Canadian practices and values and our ethical oil products.”
Kent subsequently abandoned Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto protocol and has presided over the muzzling of government scientists, major cuts to Environment Canada staff and budgets, and the dismantling of decades of environmental regulation through omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 – all of which primarily benefits the oil and gas industry.
According to my research, not a single mainstream media outlet has ever reported Environment Minister Kent’s former work for H+K, even though the latter’s involvement with Enbridge might warrant such a mention. The media can dig when they want to: they managed to expose incidents from 25 years ago that led to the recent resignation of Daniel Breton, Quebec’s environment minister.
The Parent Company
H+K is actually now a mere subsidiary of the largest PR outfit in the world, the leader in what the New York Times (May 14, 2012) calls the multi-billion-dollar “influence-peddling industry.” The UK parent company – WPP Group, based in London – has “a workforce of 158,000 in 107 countries and 2011 billings of $72.3 billion.” Besides H+K, WPP owns a dozen other big PR outfits including Burson-Marsteller, whose Canadian “affiliate” National Public Relations is also advising Enbridge.
WPP and its subsidiaries don’t reveal their client lists. But according to my research, WPP/H+K/National Public Relations’ energy clients include: Enbridge, Encana, Imperial Oil, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), TransAlta Corp., Nalcor Energy, Teck, The Oil Sands Developers Group, the Canadian Centre for Energy Information, Spectra Energy, the Ontario Power Authority, the Natural Gas Alliance, SNC-Lavalin, the Government of Alberta, and China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) in its takeover of Nexen (approved by Harper in Dec. 2012).
Calling the WPP Group a “consolidating force” in the midst of political polarization, the New York Times reports that over the last dozen years, WPP has been buying up so many lobbying firms, public relations firms, media strategy firms, political consulting firms, and advertising firms that it “has become, in effect, a special interest mega-firm, with offerings for conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and polluters, gun lovers and gun haters, Tea Party die-hards and public sector unions, old guard media and their high tech competitors – the entire gamut from left to right, top to bottom.”
What happens when a PR mega-firm appears to represent “the entire gamut” of political opinion? We’re in the process of finding out, but it’s useful to recall that in the early 1990s, H+K (for about $10 million from its Kuwaiti clients) was able to start the first US Gulf war with Iraq through its “hundreds of dead incubator babies” media fabrication – credited with having swung American public opinion to the “necessity” of the war. In December 1992, CBC’s The Fifth Estate exposed this sordid PR story in a masterful TV documentary called “To Sell a War” – which can be found on YouTube and still makes for fascinating viewing.
In his August 31, 2012 blog, Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart observed: “I’ve met quite a few Environment Ministers over the last 22 years. Indeed, listening to the concerns and proposed solutions of environmental groups is generally considered part of their job description. But their real job is to be the champion for environmental protection within government … So it came as a shock to have Peter Kent, as his first public statement after becoming Minister of Environment in January 2011, extol the virtues of ‘ethical oil.’ Or hear him slander environmental charities as ‘money launderers.’ Which makes you wonder who, exactly, is he listening to?”
Stewart noted that since becoming Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent had met 48 times with oil and gas lobbyists and only seven times with environmental groups.
While ignoring environmental organizations, apparently Peter Kent wasn’t even listening to the federal Commissioner of the Environment Scott Vaughan, who on January 18, 2013 announced his early resignation after five years in the post (which is part of the auditor general’s office). Vaughan told PostMedia’s Mike De Souza in September 2012 that “I met with Minister Kent, I think, about half the times I tabled reports,” far less often than Vaughan had met with previous environment ministers.
Vaughan’s December 2011 report on the transport of dangerous goods in Canada had found major problems with oil and gas pipeline safety (see March-April 2012 Watershed Sentinel). His recent findings on greenhouse gas emissions reportedly prompted Peter Kent to discredit the report. Last September, Vaughan had told Mike De Souza that he intended to study the effects of Bill C-38 on the environment. That’s not something the Harper Cabinet would appreciate.
In January 2013, a letter – obtained by Greenpeace through access to information laws and provided to Max Paris at CBC News – revealed that in late 2011, the oil and gas industry had requested changes be made to the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Migratory Birds Convention Act.
As reported by cbc.ca (Jan. 9, 2013): “The letter, dated Dec. 12, 2011, was addressed to Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. It came from a group called the Energy Framework Initiative (EFI), which is made up of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers [CAPP], the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association [CEPA], the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute [CPPI] (now the Canadian Fuels Association) and the Canadian Gas Association [CGA]. “The purpose of our letter is to express our shared views on the near-term opportunities before the government to address regulatory reform for major energy industries in Canada,” wrote the EFI.”
The letter (signed by Brenda Kenny of CEPA, Timothy M. Egan of CGA, Peter Boag of CPPI, and David Collyer of CAPP) explained that “the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes. This results in a position of adversarial prohibition, rather than enabling collaborative conservation to achieve agreed goals.”
The CBC reported, “Within ten months of the request the industry had almost everything it wanted,” as omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 rewrote the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, gutted the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and changed the National Energy Board Act and the Species at Risk Act.
In a real democracy, this incriminating letter would be a major news story across the country. But in the mock democracy of Harperland, the letter has effectively disappeared.
Obviously, the Canadian media “echo chamber” can easily go silent on command.
The Echo Chamber
By 2010 in the US, PR agents had come to outnumber professional journalists by a ratio of four to one, according to The Death and Life of American Journalism, by Robert W. McChesney and John Nicols. A writer for the Guardian in the UK (Oct. 4, 2012) noted that the ratio in Britain has moved “in the same direction.” Even the Economist (May 19, 2011) was prompted to observe that “the increasingly thin staffing of newsrooms seems to be encouraging the spinners to be more shameless than ever …”
Besides the endless press/video news releases, satellite feeds of client interviews/sound-bites to TV/radio stations, press junkets, astroturf websites, ghost-written op-eds, promises to malleable reporters of “access” to their clients, WPP/H+K/National Public Relations provide their own pundits to Canadian media outlets.
H+K’s Michael Coates is a blogger for CanadianBusiness.com. A year ago (Jan. 19, 2012), Coates backed Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s rant about “radical environmentalists” and stated in his blog that “no single group, whether environmental or aboriginal, should be able to stand in the way of the economic prosperity of the country overall.”
National Public Relations’ Bruce Anderson regularly appears on CBC’s “At Issue” panel and his views are often published in the Globe & Mail. Rick Anderson, now a Senior Advisor at National Public Relations, provides commentary to CTV’s “Canada AM,” and “Power Play,” CBC’s “As It Happens,” “Newsworld” and “The National,” the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, iPolitics.ca, and Sun News.
Meanwhile, BC’s Rafe Mair – a knowledgeable critic of Northern Gateway, fish farms and fracking – was fired by the CBC as a commentator this past summer. (Despite increasingly catering to the neo-cons, the CBC had its budget slashed by 17 percent and in April 2012 announced cuts to current affairs shows and 88 news jobs.)
Sun TV, sometimes known as “Fox News North,” is being run by Luc Lavoie (long-time spokesman for Brian Mulroney), who returned to work for National Public Relations in Sept. 2009 and took over the running of Sun TV in Sept. 2010 when former Harper spin doctor Kory Teneycke left the station. Sun News provides a regular outlet for “ethical oiler” Ezra Levant, who has been spouting inflammatory rhetoric against the Idle No More movement.
H+K’s Michael Coates blogged (June 22, 2010), “From a PR and PA [public affairs] perspective the addition of Sun News offers our industry an opportunity for our consultants to be at their creative best … If the success of Fox TV in the US is any indication, edgy and entertaining will win plenty of viewers. And our clients will have a whole new network on which to get their messages out.”
On April 23, the CRTC will consider Sun News Network’s application to force cable TV carriers to distribute Sun TV as part of their basic cable package. Such mandatory carriage would allow Sun TV to receive millions of dollars per year from Canada’s cable TV subscribers (about $4 per subscriber annually), whether they watch Sun TV or not.
In their 2012 book Merchants of Doubt, co-authors Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway focus on the enduring effectiveness of a PR strategy developed in the 1950s by H+K for its tobacco clients. The authors call it the “Tobacco Strategy,” in which H+K gathered their own paid team of “independent” scientists to persuade the public and government regulators that there was no scientific link between cigarette smoking and cancer.
Merchants of Doubt meticulously traces how that same PR strategy (and often, the same group of scientists) has since been used to challenge scientific evidence on acid rain, destruction of the ozone layer, toxicity of DDT, second-hand smoke, climate change – thereby delaying regulatory action, muddying the science, and confusing the public on environmental issues. Under this strategy, established science becomes just another competing “side” in an issue, while corporate-financed scientific studies or bought scientific opinion are granted equal weight by the media.
But in Canada, that time-tested H+K PR strategy is being taken much further by the Harper cabinet itself, including Peter Kent, with government scientists being muzzled, fired en masse, and even their research facilities dismantled and destroyed.
Food For Thought
In November 2012, H+K client The Highland Companies (backed by a $23 billion US hedge fund) cancelled its application for a mega-quarry in southwestern Ontario, after a six-year struggle against it by local farmer activists. One of the interesting things about that struggle is that it was basically ignored by Canada’s mainstream media.
Undaunted, the activists spread their message about the dangers to agricultural land and southern Ontario’s water supply through ubiquitous lawn signs, neighbour-to-neighbour conversations, local and alternative media coverage, local community events and farmers’ markets, social media, enlisting support from local businesses, and (brilliantly) by engaging the interest of Canadian chefs.
“Foodstock 2011,” a fund-raiser held in a field next to the mega-quarry site, featured fares prepared by chefs from across the country and attracted 28,000 people. “Soupstock 2012,” held in a Toronto park last October, attracted 40,000 people for an afternoon of soup-tasting while listening to live music and brief anti-quarry speeches.
Barely a month later, The Highland Companies group, admitting that it had no “social licence” to proceed, backed out of its mega-quarry plan.
The take-away here is that Canadian mainstream media coverage had little to do with the activists’ success, but the corporation involved (and its PR advisor) couldn’t ignore the groundswell against it.
Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books, including Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media.