Few issues ignite environmentalists the way the oil sands development (aka: the tar sands) does. Recently, a peer review study linked evidence of fish abnormalities to high levels of toxins and pointed to oil sands activity as a direct cause.
The companies fund a joint government/industry science-based environmental monitoring project called RAMP (Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program). RAMP includes representatives from local and aboriginal communities, environmental non-government organizations, government agencies (municipal, provincial and federal), oil sands and other industries, and other independent stakeholders.
RAMP is in damage control mode, and the Alberta government is in Toronto promoting the oil sands. It’s a perfect storm: Government and industry against community members and environmentalists in a battle for public support.
Question: can government and industry use PR to mitigate the damage?
Answer: depends where the gap in understanding is. If it’s between what stakeholders expect you do and what you are actually doing, then you have to change what you’re doing. If it’s a perception problem, then yes, communications can help, but only if you’re prepared to include all your critics and get ahead of this emerging, smoldering crisis.
As the debate heats up, latent stakeholders will become aware of the issue, and depending on the response from either side, they could begin to feel more urgency. The project has reportedly faced criticism in the past, but independent studies were not available. This time, the credibility of RAMP’s science is being challenged, and nothing could be worse for the reputation of an evidence-based program. Government will face increased pressure to respond, which may include dismantling the RAMP project.
Some are calling for an adult discussion to divide fact from fiction. As the author points out, no one is ‘telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. So maybe it is a perception problem, but that’s something industry and government needs to answer honestly.
Given the scope and horrific mismanagement of the BP oil spill disaster, almost nothing industry says will generate credibility. And governments (especially pro-oil Alberta) aren’t trusted on this issue either. So listen up: include your critics to find common ground and resolve the matter. If nothing else, a proactive approach will turn the volume down and limit the flow of misinformation.
PR experts: would love to hear your thoughts on this issue!