Alberta’s ‘energy war room’ risks being seen as a propaganda agency — unless it sticks to the facts
It was a little more than a decade ago when the Alberta government created a website to go after its critics, usually over media reporting about the oilsands and climate issues.
For the Record, as it was called, was launched by then-premier Ed Stelmach’s office to correct what it deemed were media mistakes, to dispel myths and to provide more “balance” to these topics.
It issued government corrections about the media’s reporting of a mutated “two-jawed fish” found in Lake Athabasca (the extra jaw was, in fact “the tongue depressed between the jaws, due to ligament contraction after death,” it said.) It also admonished a respected magazine for claiming some oilsands projects had polluted waterways.
“It’s not a forum to argue philosophy and spin . . . It’s about factual information,” the premier’s press secretary, Tom Olsen, said in December 2008.
“I don’t see it as government policing journalists.”
For the Record didn’t last very long, nor was it particularly effective. But it underscores the difficulty now facing the Kenney government and its new energy war room, officially renamed the Canadian Energy Centre.
The centre, with a $30-million government budget, is expected to open in Calgary by the end of the year.
And its new managing director is the same Tom Olsen, a former Calgary Herald journalist, communications consultant and unsuccessful UCP candidate in the last election.
On Wednesday, Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the centre, with Olsen at the helm collecting a $194,000 annual salary, will use facts to counteract misinformation about the oilpatch.
A rapid response unit will issue “swift responses to misinformation spread through social and traditional media.”
A data and research unit will analyze information about the industry, while an energy literacy unit will create content and “help the province take control of its energy story.”
“Part of the main function in there is to anticipate where the ball is going, to get ahead of the story, to tell the story, to be able to write the story,” Savage told reporters Wednesday at the legislature.
Alas, if only all governments could write their own unfiltered narratives without the pesky criticism of naysayers.
The risk is just being seen as a propaganda agency…
But, if it was difficult for the Stelmach government a decade ago to set the record straight for mainstream media reporting on the oilsands or climate concerns, imagine how difficult it will be to do that in 2019, with the proliferation of social media and polarized audiences.
Mount Royal University communications professor David Taras can see the need for such a centre to try to get out data and facts, such as what environmental action the industry is actually taking.
But he believes the broader war-room exercise is rife with potential pitfalls.
The oilpatch already has companies and industry associations to present the case for Canada’s energy sector. The provincial government has many sectors — not just its largest one — to defend.
To succeed, the information has to be accepted by the public and shared on social media networks, because “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” said Taras.
If the war room is constantly wading into battles on Facebook with anti-oilsands critics who are not going to change their minds, what’s the end game?
“The risk is just being seen as a propaganda agency, at a time when people are very good at spotting PR exercises and . . . looking foolish in that process,” he said.
“My suspicion is that it is a hammer looking for something to nail.”
Those who support and oppose the war room agree the centre can be useful if it collects and releases solid data about energy development in the province, adding more facts to the broader debate.
The Canadian Energy Regulator (formerly the National Energy Board) has a wealth of information and Statistics Canada recently launched the Canadian Energy Information Portal, although it’s still got a ways to go to match the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“If they want to just give data, there is a value to that,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada. “But in the war room aspect of this, to just . . . be an attack team, that is going to fall flat.”
Stewart Muir, executive director of Resource Works, a Vancouver-based group that advocates for natural resource development, supports the concept of the centre and believes there is a place for Alberta to move into a neutral information space. For example, there is confusion about Canada’s long-term strategy for the oil and gas sector, or if one even exists.
“Alberta can do a lot to influence the national discussion on how do we get to having a national energy strategy that is fair to all provinces,” he said.
“Don’t be afraid to stand up and be assertive for Alberta . . . in a way that is fact based, respectful and within bounds in all of those ways. Then I think they are golden.”
The other question to ask is what does success actually look like? (For the Record issued only a few corrections before it quietly faded away.)
Pointing out the role of technology to lower future oilsands emissions, or how Canadian natural gas is needed to displace coal used in other countries, might make sense. Picking scraps on Twitter will be a waste of time, unless the point of the exercise is simply to be seen to be combative.
“The key to Kenney’s popularity is he’s seen as the guy who fights back on the behalf of Alberta, and this reinforces his image as a guy who is going to fight back,” added Taras.
“If that gets accomplished, for Kenney it will be a great success, regardless of whether or not they move the message beyond Alberta.”