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PR pro advice costs Tories $35K

Posted by mhudema on May 26, 2008

Kelly Cryderman
Calgary Herald

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Alberta government has called in high-priced outside help to quell increasing public concern over the oil industry’s impact on the environment.

Peter Sandman, a prominent American communications expert who bills $650 an hour — and who often works for government, environmental groups and big industrial players, including oil and gas — gave Alberta Environment officials presentations over two days this month on how to better handle regular public meetings and controversies that flare up.

Total cost, including preparation and travel time: $35,000.

“I would hope that it’s not about sharpening their image but it’s more about being more responsive and more transparent,” said Sandman, who is known for advising corporate clients to be more forthright about their failures and weaknesses to engender public trust.

“It’s not a secret that when you mine bitumen, it’s pretty ugly,” Sandman said.

“It’s not shocking that tailings ponds occasionally kill ducks,” Sandman said.

“In general, companies, including Alberta oil companies, and government agencies, including Alberta agencies, have trouble saying things that everybody knows to be true and that are embarrassing, or reflect badly on them,” he said.

Travelling from his office in Princeton, N.J., Sandman has been in Alberta three times this year– and has also criticized the oil and gas industry’s handling of the royalty review on his website, writing “too many industry statements came across as threats or bluffs, not just information.”

Sandman expects to find more work in the province as environmental issues and questions about the oil and gas industry increasingly weigh on the public consciousness.

In fact, Premier Ed Stelmach and Environment Minister Rob Renner attended his presentation to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in January. Renner thought it would be a good idea for Sandman to present to his staff.

While Sandman was hired before 500 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond north of Fort McMurray in April, he only gave his presentation this month. He said the government could have handled the controversy much better.

At the time, Stelmach tried to put the number of dead ducks in perspective by noting that a minimum of 30,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year in the United States.

“You can say it but you can’t say it in the moment when people are disgusted about these photos of dead ducks,” Sandman said.

Even as the Alberta government spends $25 million in a re-branding campaign to convince outsiders that Alberta is a great place to live and the oilsands are not the ecological disaster some environmentalists suggest, it has been dogged by controversies including the duck deaths, a pipeline rupture that sent 19,000 litres of crude oil into the Lesser Slave River, power line placements, water and health worries and concerns about climate change.

Alberta Environment has 13 open investigations related to the oilsands.

Sandman said he is getting more business in Alberta “because of the oilsands efforts and because of the royalty fight. For most of the last 30 years, oil development in Alberta has not been controversial in Alberta.

“Now oil and gas development is controversial in Alberta.

Sandman’s website biography states: “Dr. Sandman has helped his clients through a wide range of public controversies that threatened corporate or government reputation — from oil spills to labour-management battles; from E. coli contamination to the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In terms first popularized by Dr. Sandman, these are situations where the ‘hazard’ is low, the ‘outrage’ is high, and the core task is outrage management.”

Alberta Liberal environment critic David Swann said he hopes Sandman will help the government communicate more effectively, but worries the government will use public relations over substantive action.

“It’s certainly a very desperate attempt to cover over an inadequately funded department,” Swann said.

“It does seem that they’re not doing a very good job of communicating risk. It’s deny, deny, deny.”

The Sierra Club’s Lindsay Telfer said she is curious to see how Sandman’s advice influences the Stelmach government’s “very specific attempts to greenwash the oilsands.”

kcryderman@theherald.canwest.com
© The Calgary Herald 2008

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