Clean Coal ~ It Smells Good Too!

As PR professionals, we all dread that moment in our careers when a questionable campaign lands on our desk ~ the age-old ethical dilemma. What to do? What to do?

Let’s hope something called Clean Coal will be enough of an oxymoron to slap you in the face and send your tail spinning in the opposite direction. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s $35-million dollar PR campaign is one such unscrupulous beast. It’s this kind of PR that gives our business a bad name. The ad campaign promotes the use of coal energy as American, affordable and the way of the future. Call it spin, call it astroturfing, it’s unethical.

The messaging in this ad campaign is powerful and delivered in such a way that it comes at you like a round of bullets with the repetition of such phrases as “I believe” and “we will do this.” You’re so stunned by it that you have no choice but to pay attention. Very clever but utterly amoral and even a little scary. The imagery is also very cleverly done with stills of people from all walks of life each with a line to say like, “I believe in the future… I believe in protecting the environment… I believe in technology… I believe we can limit greenhouse gases…” (I believe you’re having me on. Don’t forget. They’re talking about coal.) But the piece de resistance is the tagline: “Clean Coal ~ America’s power.” Cunning double entendre.

But what does the coalition for Clean Coal have to say about the eco-disaster that happened in Tennessee on December 22? Over 500 million gallons of toxic sludge from a coal burning power plant burst through the retaining wall and into the water system, destroying houses and forcing residents to evacuate. I’d say the ACCCE has egg on their face now.

Clean Coal Believers ~ don’t be fooled again. There is nothing clean about coal.

Astroturfing, PR and Kyoto

Back in 2002, Canada’s largest PR firm National Public Relations was hired by “a coalition of those that stood to lose the most from Kyoto — automakers, mining companies and, of course, oil companies, according to Zoe Cormier in This Magazine September/October 2006. They gave themselves “a progressive-sounding name — the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions — and lobbied against provincial leaders, the media and the public.”

Cormier goes on to say that “CCRES didn’t refute the existence of global warmng itself, but argued instead that Kyoto was simply the wrong solution to the problem. Appealing to Canadian’s common sense and nationalism. NPR’s fly-by-night coalition asked them to reject a one-size-fits-all solution in favour of one ‘made in Canada.'”

The Coalition didn’t last long — only five months from its inception in September 2002 to its last media release in February 2003. But it was around long enough to sway public opinion and gain favour with certain cabinet ministers. Cormer says that “the phrase ‘made in Canada’ caught on, and it is now experiencing a renaissance. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, (with the co-operation of major news organizations) have resurrected the phrase to describe new plans to deal with climate change, which involve cutting 80 per cent of the budget for Kyoto, axing almost all of the Liberal’s global-warming programs, and shutting down the federal climate change site.”

Now that’s progressive!

The National PR lobbyist in charge of this campaign was “Guy Giorno, Mike Harris’s old chief of staff and ultimate Tory party insider,” says Now magazine’s Josh Matlow, who wrote an article in October 2002 entitled Big Oil’s Kyoto Party, Harris Whiz Kid Pulls Strings at Wine and Shrimp Fete. This article gave a detailed account of an event organized by Giorno:

Some of Ernie Eves’s top cabinet ministers partied last week with Kyoto-bashers the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions, a lobby group with close ties to both Ralph Klein and the energy industry.And through a combo of stealth and strategy, I managed to crash the soiree.

It took place in the Queen’s Park dining hall and was a very chummy shrimp-and-wine gathering, a chance for members of the coalition — the Canadian Association of Oil Well Drilling Contractors, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Landmen, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, etc — to schmooze Tory heavies.

There were speeches by coalition organizers, and a particularly passionate Ontario energy minister, John Baird, made his anti-Kyoto rallying cry. Needless to say, the audience was very receptive. Baird’s parliamentary assistant, Scarborough MPP Steve Gilchrist, who at one time helped block developers’ plans for the Oak Ridges Moraine, was busy propping open doors with chairs to give relief to a very hot and stuffy room.

I couldn’t help remarking to him that perhaps the room was so unbearably hot because of climate change. He was not amused.

Two days after the meeting, Giorno sent every MPP at Queen’s Park an e-mail suggesting what they might say in op-ed news pieces or letters to their constituents about Kyoto.

Kind of puts Event Planning into a whole different light.

National PR is affiliated with one of the “world’s biggest — and most notorious — PR firms, Burson-Marsteller,” says Cormier. “It has purportedly worked for some of the most infamous governments of the twentieth century, including the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s, Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania, the government of Indonesia (following the massacre in East Timor) and the Nigerian government (to discredit reports of genocide). It has also reportedly worked for many years with Monsanto (in particular to push for approval of synthetic hormones to force cows to produce more milk,  and to lobby against mandatory labeling of milk from treated cows in the US) and for Dow Corning to fight legislation to limit the use of silicon implants.”

But it’s not all bad news. Thankfully there are PR practitioners out there like James Hoggan, who owns Vancouver’s largest PR firm, James Hoggan and Associates. He says, “PR companies have been out there defending corporations, and now they are doing it with climate change — and it’s a far worse problem than all the other ones.”

Hoggan created, a domain where bloggers keep readers up to date on PR spin and climate change and scientific evidence of global warming.

Hoggan says, “To create understanding with [public relations], there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the goal of our communications is actually to confuse people, to create doubt about existing science — that says you are up to something unethical right from the start . . . . An ethical approach to PR involves creating a dialogue with the public that is transparent and open — relationship building — rather than advertising or manipulating your way out of problems.

“Being against climate change is pretty stupid from a PR point of view. If you don’t want to end up looking like those cigarette executives standing in front of Congress a few years ago, telling us that there is no evidence that cigarettes cause cancer, don’t fight something that you are inevitably going to lose.”