TransCanada has started discussions with agencies to replace Edelman on the PR account for its Energy East pipeline project, after the two parties agreed to part ways at the end of the year following the leak of communications strategy documents.
TransCanada has yet to determine the source of the leak – including whether it originated internally or from within Edelman – and the Calgary, Alberta-based energy company has also undertaken a review of how it processes and secures sensitive documents, says James Millar, its director of communications. The leak was the primary reason for the split from Edelman, he explains, and third-party energy-sector PR pros say a divorce was unavoidable after such an incident, given that energy pipelines are such highly charged political issues.
The company said in a statement on its website last month that "the conversation about Energy East has turned into a debate about our choice of agency partner. We need to get back to a conversation about the project itself."
Millar tells PRWeek that the company is considering a range of third-party vendors to take over from Edelman, including those with roots in PR, as well as traditional advertising.
"We will not make any knee-jerk decisions on who we should work with, but we also can’t lose focus that we need to move forward with someone else, to transition as quickly as possible with a new partner," Millar explains. "We have to work with someone externally because we have to do the things that quite frankly our opponents are doing to be part of the conversation."
TransCanada has launched an advocacy campaign to promote its $120 billion Energy East proposal, which has run into opposition from environmental groups and other organizations, particularly in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It would modify existing natural gas pipelines to carry crude oil from Alberta to shipping terminals in eastern Canada.
The advocacy campaign includes heavy activity on digital and social media, including the launch four weeks ago of a dedicated portal, which includes fact checks of media reports, an outline of the pipeline’s economic benefits, as well as blogs. Edelman advised TransCanada on the website.
The energy company is also planning a comprehensive review of how files are handled, processed, and secured internally after the Edelman documents were leaked to Greenpeace, one of the staunchest detractors of the pipeline project.
"Any time you have a situation like this, you have to look at processes internally to manage them, because every organization has sensitive documents," Millar says. "If we need to tighten them up, we will do that, because they have to be respected."
The company and Edelman faced media scrutiny about a particular recommendation the agency made: that TransCanada throw opponents off balance by recruiting third-party critics "to pressure Energy East opponents."
"You are always going to get different recommendations, and we were somewhat hoisted on the petard for even considering a recommendation we didn’t even take," explains Millar.
Edelman managed the account from Canada, where it has offices in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. However, the firm came up with the recommendations by sourcing its top experts in oil and gas, including those from outside the country, says Millar.
"We asked Edelman to source its best people, which it did. We did the recommendations that made sense, and we told them the ones we felt were more American-style we would not implement," says Millar. "There is a difference in culture [between the two countries], and therefore sometimes a different way of approaching certain things."
"I believe we can have a healthy debate about this project externally, and quite frankly with anyone we hire," he adds.
Edelman declined to comment for this article.
Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator for Greenpeace in Toronto, declined to say who leaked the documents to the organization. However, he specified that the leak originated from within Canada.
"It feels as though Edelman has been thrown under the bus," he says. "The TransCanada logo was on the documents, it seemed a product of a long process where both parties were involved right down to very detailed work charts."
He says energy companies need to be very cautious about how they communicate, given what he characterizes as that industry’s growing reputation for considering underhanded tactics in its comms strategies.
He points to widely reported comments made to oil and gas industry executives by veteran Washington political consultant Richard Berman. In a speech that was secretly recorded, Berman said if the industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing down its projects, it must be prepared to employ such tactics as digging up embarrassing information about environmentalists and liberal celebrities.
"You don’t want to be seen engaging in any sort of way with those kinds of practices," says Stewart.
Don Boynton, principal consultant at the Calgary-based Reputation Counsel, who has experience in sectors such as energy and the environment, counters that the tactics outlined in the leaked documents were reasonable and above-board.
"Greenpeace is hugely international, and using the very same tactics to promote and pressure different stakeholders that were being considered by TransCanada," Boynton says.
Still, he believes Greenpeace was able to effectively use the documents to undermine TransCanada’s efforts. Mainstream media coverage of the leak portrayed the company as seeking sneaky PR measures. Given that, TransCanada had no option to but to end its relationship with Edelman, asserts Boynton.
"It didn’t want to get into a place where [TransCanada had to keep] defending its communications, because then the company is off its core mission and defending its own reputation," Boynton explains. "The nature of contemporary environmental and energy development communications in the US, and now also in Canada, has become very much adversarial."
Regardless of whether the media scrutiny was fair, Levick SVP Rick Kessler, once a senior adviser to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says TransCanada needs to demonstrate an approach going forward that is not confrontational, sly, or mercurial.
"A softer touch is needed – and that’s not a uniquely American or Canadian response. Whatever TransCanada does, it needs to be more interactive," adds Kessler.
He says the company should look to the world’s largest retailer for inspiration.
"Walmart is an example of a company that a lot of people don’t particularly think is a good company, and it runs into fighting battles all the time and yet always win those battles. It engages in the community, listens, alters things, and moves forward," Kessler says. "That is the approach TransCanada needs to take here."