Harper Government Hires Firm for $22 Million International Ad Campaign Promoting Oilsands

The Harper government has hired an international public relations firm to oversee a $22 million advertising campaign to promote the oilsands and Canada's natural resources sector around the world.

The Canadian arm of PR firm FleishmanHillard won a bid for the initial $1.695 million contract to conduct the first phase of the ad campaign, reports the Toronto Star.

The first phase of the ad campaign will reach the United States, Europe, and Asia this year. If the firm's contract is renewed for 2015, it could be worth up to $4 million, with the remaining $18 million reserved for media buys.

FleishmanHillard, which has previously done strategic communications work and public opinion research for federal departments, has offices in all three targeted markets.

The firm will be developing and producing the ads for print, internet and television, and will be responsible for the drafting and coordination of public relations, advertising and social media strategies, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Natural Resources Canada's request for proposals (RFP) presents a plan for the campaign, focusing on “strengthening Canadas [sic] brand as a global leader in responsible resource development” and “[expanding] market access for Canadian natural resources, primarily energy.” The word “responsible” is further underlined in the proposed messages.

While the campaign is to address Canada's entire natural resources sector, the RFP only explicitly mentions oilsands bitumen, pointing out how the latter industry has been “unfairly” targeted by proposals like the European Fuel Quality Directive “in part due to preconceived notions about the oil sands that are not supported by science.”

The department suggests the campaign emphasize Canada as a “stable and secure choice” in sustainable energy, “compared to international alternatives,” and outline the “unparalleled” investment opportunities in the country's energy sector.

Such messaging was tested in Washington focus groups in April 2013. HarrisDecima submitted a report to Natural Resources in September, which found the groups had a “neutral to positive” response to ads suggesting an increased energy partnership between the U.S. and Canada.

“Overall, it was fairly clear that Canada is held in fairly high regard, even if it is not often considered, and that an element of that high regard relates to Canada being a competent and trustworthy neighbour/partner — both in terms of industrial partnerships and acting responsibly,” says the report, which cost $58,000 to commission.

Despite these results, the Obama administration has not yet been forthcoming in providing approval for the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which faces strong environmental opposition in the U.S. Domestic opposition to various proposed pipeline projects including the Northern Gateway, which would transport crude oil from Alberta to British Columbia, also remains strong.

David Provencher, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, said that the ad campaign would ensure a “fact-based dialogue” to “better inform” markets about Canada's resource development.

“The objectives of the ad campaign are to raise awareness of Canada's environmental record and the shared U.S.-Canada energy interest and needs,” said Provencher, in a statement.

“The campaign is also intended to raise awareness among decision-makers in Europe and the Asia Pacific that Canada is a secure, reliable and responsible supplier of crude oil, natural gas and other natural resources.”

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen, who has voiced opposition to the Northern Gateway project, called the campaign an attempt by the Harper government to “greenwash” Canada's damaged international reputation as an environmentally friendly nation. He also questioned the allocation of public funds to help the energy industry with advertising.

“Of all the industries, I didn't know that oil and gas and mining companies were so impoverished that they couldn't take ads out in newspapers. I don't know why we're subsidizing Shell and Chevron in their efforts to sell oil. I think they're more than capable of doing that themselves,” said Cullen.

FleishmanHillard's Ottawa office declined to comment on the campaign.

While the ad campaign's estimated budget is $22 million, Natural Resources Canada noted that the final cost will not be made public until the government releases its 2014-2015 annual report on advertising expenses.