The Oil Sands PR War – by Chris Turner (Marketing Magazine – August 13, 2012)

For a column about the dismal image of Canada’s mining sector by Stan Sudol, click here:

The down and dirty fight to brand Canada’s oil patch – Chris Turner
Not long ago, a half-page ad appeared on page three of The Globe & Mail. Over an image of a bucolic forest glade lit by a golden sunrise, a headline read, “Energy the world needs. The approach Canadians expect.” The ad was short on specifics—a block of smaller type spoke of Canada’s perception in the wider world and “a constant effort to improve our environmental performance.” The only appearance of the word oil was in the URL for the campaign’s website:

The ad had been placed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and it was the latest effort in an ongoing, two-year campaign to improve the public image of Canada’s oil industry—particularly the lucrative but much-maligned bitumen extraction business in the oil sands of northern Alberta. The bucolic forest glade, the ad’s fine print noted, was a “reclaimed mining operation” in Alberta’s vast boreal forest, executed by Syncrude.
If Globe readers didn’t come away from their morning scan thinking of CAPP’s golden meadow, that might be because it wasn’t the only story about Canadian oil in the front section of the paper that day. “Spate of spills pushes Alberta to harder look at pipeline safety,” read a front-page headline. The article covered a dramatic recent spill into the waters of Alberta’s cottage country from a Plains Midstream oil pipeline, and it continued across half of an inside page, featuring an infographic nearly the same size as CAPP’s ad that detailed the eight oil spills across the province since April 2011.
On this day, at least, the news had undone all of CAPP’s hard work. There was no reclaimed-forest scene that would’ve been sufficiently serene to outshine the glaring oil spill headlines. And it mattered not at all that few pipeline companies are even members of CAPP. Canadians don’t differentiate between “upstream” and “downstream” oil business operations for the same reason they never ask whether Syncrude or Suncor or Saudi Aramco supplied the regular unleaded they’re pumping into their tanks: it’s all oil. Indeed, CAPP’s own campaign doesn’t even like to be that specific; it just talks about energy.

The project’s whole intent has been to associate Canadian oil companies with feel-good images, to turn public attention away from black crude gurgling out of ruptured pipes. CAPP had only placed the ad—and mounted the whole campaign—because too many Canadians already associated Alberta’s oil patch with burst pipelines and soaring greenhouse gas emissions and the corpses of dead ducks floating in toxic tailings ponds.

“It was a huge decision for the industry to feel like it needed to engage in advertising,” says CAPP vice-president Janet Annesley. “There was that tsunami of criticism, and a decision was taken that the only way that we can reach the number of Canadians to begin this conversation is through a broad-based advertising program.”
Two years on, it can be hard to see much in the way of improvement. The conversation about the costs and benefits of Alberta’s oil industry has never been more divisive, never more visible nor more heated. Never have the oil sands been more thunderously championed nor more widely denounced. After two years, in the midst of all this noise, can the oil patch’s conventional rebranding effort claim any impact at all?

The answer is a highly qualified yes. The conversation may be a contentious one, but at least the industry now has a voice in it. It may not have found just the right tone yet—and maybe not even the best medium—but its stories do in fact appear to matter to the almost 50% of Canadians, according to a recent CAPP poll, who place themselves in the neutral middle of the debate, wondering who’s telling the truth.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Marketing Magazine website: