Pipeline wars: Who speaks for shipping?

(originally published by BC Shipping News February 6 2013)

Communications expert weighs in on the industry’s silent response to protests…

I have been watching the Enbridge Northern Gateway — and now Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain — pipeline debate for over a year now. To me, it has been a year of pipeline industry denial and bungling; of heavy-handed government and a complete misreading of public sentiment by all.

From the marine sector: ringing silence other than some preaching-to-the-choir moments inside the halls of industry.

Make no mistake; this debate is not just about tankers. In December, we saw the focus switch briefly to bulk coal carriers after the accident at Westshore’s Roberts Bank Terminal. “This really is coal’s Enbridge moment,” cried one environmentalist.

What could be done differently? How can the shipping sector improve what is rapidly becoming a debilitating liability: its public image?

In a previous life, I was a towboater, and have sailed this coast from Seattle to Alaska, first in tugs, then powerboats and now a classic sailboat. I have sailed ‘round Princess Royal Island, sat in the hot springs in Douglas Channel, rode out storm-force winds in Trollers Lagoon just off Estevan Sound, and made the jump across Hecate Strait from the top of Principe Channel. I know and love this coast.

I admit to being conflicted on the Enbridge proposal. A spill terrifies me. The area is known for tricky navigation, a lack of support resources and wild weather. Human mistakes compound, causing tragedies: the Queen of the North still sits in the deep waters off Gill Island, bubbling up contaminants, seemingly deserted by owners and regulators.

I know there have not been any tanker spills in B.C. and spills elsewhere have decreased significantly with new equipment, training and laws. But the emotional aspects of the environmental campaigns are compelling, and the shipping industry ignores them at its peril. I am much more engaged than the average person, much more knowledgeable on shipping issues, yet I do not feel I have enough information to judge risk against benefits.

My profession is Public Relations. We do stakeholder and media relations, crisis and issues management. I have run award-winning campaigns on contentious issues: Insite (the supervised injection site), Walmart and others. In my opinion, Enbridge has made colossal communications mistakes, the most glaring being a complete misread of public sentiment. This was not a sudden crisis, but a building issue ignored over a long period of time.

Kinder Morgan’s proposed twinning of the Trans Mountain Pipeline appears to be having an easier go, but is also headed for troubled waters. While media coverage has been milder and the opposition less vocal, there are disturbing signs: opponents have come together in overflowing town hall meetings. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is vehemently and publically opposed and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan referred to Kinder Morgan as the “Keystone Cops” during the 2007 spill in Burnaby. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation across Burrard Inlet is also firmly opposed to the twinning. Opposition appears co-ordinated, motivated and growing.

In some ways the pipeline company’s stumbling approach to these projects is understandable: pipelines have historically flown under the radar. But the world has changed and B.C. is different. I believe Northern Gateway is the Lyell Island, the Clayoquot Sound and the ‘war in the woods’ of this generation.

The environmental review process is now irrelevant, other than providing additional fodder for the media. The process lost all credibility when the federal government passed legislation allowing it to simply overrule a negative ruling. So the review is now — officially — window dressing.

And regardless of the review panel’s approval — or government’s — you will have mothers and sons, grandmothers and grandchildren laying down in front of bull dozers or being carted off to prison, all playing out on our nightly news, just as it did during the 1980s’ War in the Woods. What investor has the stomach for that?

There are many issues wrapped up in this public debate. Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain have become proxies for a slew of discussions that many feel have had no public forum for debate: climate change; the Great Bear Rainforest and the broader protection of our coast; perceptions of economic colonialism and bullying by the United States; the balance of environment and jobs; the cost of economic development and who benefits from that development.

Much as it may frustrate those in the technical professions, teasing out the separate components of this debate — i.e., trying to isolate the technical discussion from the emotional pictures and the fears they evoke — is no more possible in the minds of the general public than it is to separate the threads of a fine textile and still feel the warp and weft of the cloth. To win the debate, industry must speak to the fears and the hopes just as they speak to the studies and the numbers.

The players in this drama both feel they are at a disadvantage. The enviros see themselves as the underdogs, without the resources of industry, without the ear of government, generally tarred with a broad brush that they are opposed to everything. They feel their issues are swept aside every time the economy takes a dip.

Industry bemoans its bad boy image. It is regularly caught flat-footed, surprised and then annoyed at the public’s misguided interference and their ignorance of the ‘real’ issues. It seems fractured, with each player pulling for their own little piece of the pie. Industry counts on the officials of power and is constantly gob-smacked when unofficial forces — granny in the woods — derail their multimillion dollar projects.

And from the marine industry, that ringing silence. In fairness, the marine industry is also accustomed to flying under the radar. They don’t often need the public’s awareness or approval, only that of the regulator or the minister who already knows how important shipping is and will support — so long as they feel they have permission from their constituents.

So the marine sector is rarely in the public eye. Only disaster makes it into the mainstream news. All Joe Public sees is the tanker spewing oil and the pathetic birds dying in goo. We who know the industry protest against the unfair portrayal and wonder why, when we come to controversy, perceptions are so negative. Well, what else have they seen? What other images have been offered? What positives have we given them?

What can the marine sector do differently? How can it turn this discussion around before it impacts jobs, investment, regulation and profitability? The sector must begin to communicate strategically. It must take a long-term approach to improving its reputation — and capture some short-term wins along the way.

A strategic approach would first consider the sector’s stakeholders. Defined as those who are impacted by, or can impact the sector, the list is very long, but they can be weighted and sorted into high, medium and low impact.

And let us not ignore those ‘unofficial’ stakeholders that seem to leap out of nowhere. A process called the Stakeholder Salience test rates each group by power, legitimacy and urgency. It is the last that trips up corporations. A single mom, highly motivated, with social media and the press, can change the public discussion, derail decades of planning, cost millions and change the political landscape.

With stakeholders identified, we can grapple with what we need to communicate to them. What is the ‘desired reputation’ the sector needs to reach its goals? What are the components of that reputation and how do they differ from stakeholder to stakeholder? How can they be brought into alignment across various groups?

Having defined the desired reputation and the stakeholders most important to us, we can test that reputation with the people who actually hold it: the stakeholders. Reputation exists in their minds. We can influence, we can build, but we cannot control. Our reputation resides with them.

Polling can test these perceptions and help us plan how to address the gaps between our desired reputation and the actual one we have with our stakeholders. Now we can focus our efforts. We can build a strategic communications plan: identify the channels of communication; craft our key messages. We can communicate the benefits of our industry to each of those groups whether it is employment opportunities, economic opportunities or the benefits of shipping that support all our lifestyles. We can begin to build a bank of knowledge and goodwill that will smooth discussions with regulators, improve relations with politicians, and build relationships with media.

All of this goodwill and these relationships come into play when accidents happen. It will not excuse negligence, but it will help communication in difficult times. People will be more prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.

This communications strategy cannot stand in isolation. It must be part of the overall direction of the sector. It must reflect the realities of how the sector operates. In other words one must plan, do and talk in sync if the campaign is going to be seen as authentic.

These are longer term strategies, but short-term wins can run alongside them. Identify industry spokespeople and train them to engage with the mainstream media. Pro-actively put them out as subject matter experts, building media awareness of them and their credibility. Look for opportunities to engage, rather than turtling and hoping for the best. Work out the messages; research the supporting facts; present the sector’s story in a concise, relevant way.

Communications must also be in the right tone. I don’t know about you, but when I think of oil pipelines, my mind does not naturally go to soft pastel colours, chirping birds and banalities about pathways to our future.

The shipping sector needs to speak in a voice that is authentic to it. This is a vibrant, tough, energetic sector that contributes a lot of jobs, money, taxes and opportunity to the B.C. economy. Let’s speak like that. Let’s engage in the discussion. Let’s be creative and take some risk, and not speak in the “Your call is important to us” corporate tone. Figure out what is important to the population and have a real conversation.

Whether the sector is in it or not, that conversation is taking place. A very short search of the internet turns up this partial list of organizations and sites:

www.tankerfreebc.org — A blog style site with a petition (1,587 signatures when I checked) calling on “Parliament to create a permanent ban on crude oil tankers on the coast of British Columbia.” From the site: “Tanker Free BC was founded in 2010 by a group of concerned citizens who discovered that tankers loaded with tar sands crude were passing through Vancouver Harbour.”

http://defendourcoast.ca — tied to the recent demonstration on the lawn of the legislature, it is unclear who runs this, but there is an impressive list of ‘endorsers’.

http://dogwoodinitiative.org/no-tankers — says its anti-tanker petition is close to 100,000. The Dogwood Initiative believes “British Columbians should have the right to make their own decisions about how the land they live on is used”.

http://pacificwild.org/site/our-work/no-tankers-no-pipeline.html — Pacific Wild is “committed to defend wildlife and their habitat on Canada’s Pacific coast by developing and implementing solution-based conservation strategies.”

http://notankers.org — Hard to figure out who is running this site, but they show links to the Wilderness Committee, Tanker Free BC, BCWaters.org and a host of other environmental activist organizations.

http://canadians.org/energy/issues/pipelines/index.html — The Council of Canadians, who “work to protect Canadian independence by promoting progressive policies on fair trade, clean water, energy security, public health care, and other issues of social and economic concern to Canadians.”

I am sure many readers of this article have opinions about these organizations, their tactics and their interpretation of the facts. But if the shipping sector is not even in the public debate, the anti-shipping organizations win by default.

Will any organization or person champion the shipping sector? Who will lead? And who will fund? The conversation is going on all around us. If we do nothing, then we allow others to define the issues, define right and wrong.

I do not claim to know what the right decisions are on Northern Gateway or Trans Mountain. But I do know this will not go well for the shipping sector if we do not begin to talk about the benefits of the work the industry brings to society; if we do not bring some facts and some context to the scare mongering espoused by some groups.

Nor can we expect politicians to defend us. I know of no politician that will stand against the flood of public opinion if no one from the sector is standing there with them, along with a good number of the general public.

There are proven strategies and tactics for strong communications campaigns that effectively engage the public. But it is up to the shipping sector to stand up for itself. To decide who — if anyone — will speak for shipping in B.C.

Michael Davis is the Managing Director of Reputations, one of western Canada’s leading Public Relations and Reputation Management firms. An award-winning strategist, Michael has experience in the design and implementation of reputation management campaigns and juggling the needs of complex multi-stakeholder projects. He has been recognized for excellence in his field with numerous national and international awards. 

Michael is a Trustee for the Vancouver Maritime Museum and chairs their Strategic Planning Committee. He is on the Board of Directors of Family Services of Greater Vancouver and Board Voice, and is active in all levels of Canadian politics.

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