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Who’s Behind GetItRightAlberta.ca?

Dave Cournoyer recently wrote about Get It Right Alberta, a faux special interest group that’s a classic example of astroturfing at work. From the ‘organization’s’ website:

Concerned Albertans, including private citizens, small oil and gas companies and members of the investment community, have come together to launch this website, www.getitrightalberta.ca. The website is a result of mounting concern surrounding the recommendations contained within the Report of the Alberta Royalty Review Panel (ARRP), which appear to go beyond the original mandate of “striking a balance.”

I’m not particularly interested in discussing the royalties issue (but feel free if you have an opinion)–I want to examine the site’s questionable tactics.

There’s no indication anywhere on the site as to who these ‘concerned Albertans’ actually are. I have no problem with advocacy websites–I’ve got a couple as clients–but full disclosure is essential to becoming a legitimate part of the online debate. Who would possibly take this site seriously?

And Who’s Jim McCormick?

Exploring the site a little, I found an interview on City TV’s Breakfast Television with someone named ‘Jim McCormick’, who’s a representative of the site. The segment doesn’t disclose anything else about Mr. McCormick. Maybe all the viewers already know who he is? The interviewer asks about the people behind the site, and he replies “A lot of us, across a spectrum of professions”. Curiously satisfied with that reply, she doesn’t probe any further. That’s some incisive journalism there.

Dave did a WHOIS lookup, and determined that the site was not founded by everyday Joe Albertans, but by the folks at the Calgary office of public relations giant Hill & Knowlton. This woman in particular–Lisa Litz–registered the domain.

Shame on Hill & Knowlton–they’re a big, international agency and ought to know better. It’s underhanded, sketchy moves like this that give us marketing folks a bad name. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised–this is the same company that’s advocated for tobacco, the first war in Iraq and Scientology over the years. They have a long history of underhanded tactics.

Hill & Knowlton has a whole blogger network going. I’d really like to hear some reaction to GetItRightAlberta.ca and my post from the likes of Ian or Brendan.

16 Responses to “Who’s Behind GetItRightAlberta.ca?”

  1. Brendan

    Hey Darren, heard you loud and clear…

    Here’s the dilly. Your concerns are clearly valid, and let me be clear that we had some long discussions around this and felt we reached a fair compromise (although I acknowledge that some may still argue that fact, but it does identify a grey area in terms of transparency and privacy, given changing expectations). Read on.

    The first point to address is that, in addition to actual companies, there are also individuals behind this campaign. These are folks who, for sure, have an interest in this issue as employees, owners of companies or others (and, let me be clear, there are no majors behind this), but who either wanted to protect their individual privacy or who felt that their very involvement in the industry should not taint the objectives of the site. Quite simply, we agreed to respect that.

    Secondly, and while some may argue that our registration of the URL under H&K’s name is a sign of incompetence, they can rest assured that we are not that dumb and purposely registered the URL in the name of H&K to address this specific issue. This speaks to key social media principles that we will always disclose who we are and who we are working for (both our agency and our client), and that we will not pretend to be someone or something we are not.

    To the point of disclosure, this campaign was supported by aggressive and transparent media relations outreach within Alberta – openly facilitated by H&K, and with the participation of folks like Jim McCormick, president of Teague Exploration, and Steve Sugianto, of Gallian Energy. We have been quite open in our involvement as this article shows: http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=66f26771-4bdc-4c6c-a368-2a76e7225b87

    Keep in mind, that this site is intended as a vehicle to give concerned Albertans the means to deliver a message to the government – supportive or not (which the send-a-letter function allows). It is an enabler of a dialog, and its success or failure will be based on whether Albertans chose to participate (So far, 4000 of them have). It is allowing Albertans to speak, rather than speaking on their behalf.

    I hope that helps restore some level of confidence.

  2. darren

    Brendan: Thanks for your comments–that does clear a few things up. I had assumed that H&K knew enough about domain names not to unintentionally disclose anything you didn’t want to–if I did, I didn’t mean to imply any incompetence.

    I do have a few follow-up questions, if you’ve got the time:

    1. As for disclosure, did every company want to keep their involvement private? I ask because I think some disclosure is better than none at all. That is, I’d rather know who 20% of the players are than none.

    2. The total absence of names and companies seems kind of conspicuous, don’t you think? That is, it feels more like astroturfing when nobody choses to put their name to it. Isn’t it important to address this absence in the site’s content?

    3. Why do you think Breakfast TV didn’t introduce Mr. McCormick as the president of Teague Exploration? That seems pretty germane to the story.

    4. Why can’t I find the article you reference on http://www.getitrightalberta.ca? That would have answered most of my (and others’) questions.

    (Brendan tells me his availability may be limited over the next few days, so he may not respond promptly to these questions.)

  3. Brendan

    Hey Darren… Obviously, not every company wanted to keep their involvement private (as you’ve seen with the coverage). I think, however, the real issue here is that the core focus of the site was/is as an enabling tool which, from our perspective, negates the need for the level of disclosure required of a campaign in which we (and the clients) are doing the advocating versus giving others the tools to advocate themselves. And that’s clearly an area of debate.

    The other issue, and perhaps one that we need to consider, is the notion that the website was/is simply one part of a “larger” campaign involving media and stakeholder outreach within a specific geography, meaning that there may be some folks who were unable to, or may not have, connected what they saw online to what they may or may not have seen in the media, resulting in questions around the notion of transparency.

    Ultimately, however, and as I stated at the end of my first response, this tool is intended to provide Albertans with the means to advocate for or against this process – if they chose. We do not control the message they deliver (other than the petition, of course).

    As for #3, and beyond the obvious fact that we have no control over what the media shows or doesn’t, it’s hard for me to answer for what Breakfast TV does.

    And on #4 – good question, given that it would have provided necessary clarity. We’ll see if we can get that added, though keep in mind this site will only be live another week until the government responds to the report.

    Hope that helps, and have a great Thanksgiving.

  4. Brendan

    Oh, and the reference to the URL and “incompetence” was not directed toward anything you said… that was simply raised in another post, but I wanted to address that here.

    cheers

  5. darren

    Brendan: Thanks for this. A few comments:

    “I think, however, the real issue here is that the core focus of the site was/is as an enabling tool which, from our perspective, negates the need for the level of disclosure required of a campaign in which we (and the clients) are doing the advocating versus giving others the tools to advocate themselves.”

    Are you claiming that the site provides a fair and balanced perspective on the issue? Or that it’s not advocating for your clients’ point of view? Or that it’s not a thinly-veiled lobbying site?

    If I’m wrong, maybe you can point me to the resources on the site that make arguments in favour of increasing energy royalties? If you’re presenting an enabling tool for feedback, surely each side of the debate should be represented equally?

    I don’t understand the issue very well, but my initial impression and follow-up reading is that the site has a very particular perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that–I just think you and your clients should own it.

  6. Gene

    Hey,

    I made the comment about incompetence on my blog (and since taken it back.. sorry, just got a little hot under the collar. :)

    I live in Alberta, and I’m eager to hear from small and medium-sized companies that would be affected by royalty changes. So I don’t have an issue with the message or the client. But the lack of transparency–intentional or not–is a concern.

    Maybe the problem is that website ends up representing the whole campaign (isn’t this always the case?). Things that might have been clear in media interviews or advertisements–like which corporations are underwriting this effort–just don’t turn up online.

    Too bad; the tone of the Edmonton Journal linked to above suggests the campaign is already lacking credibility.

    This is a huge issue in Alberta, and many people are hungry for information. They want the government to make the right decision. Oil and gas companies have started the sabre-rattling and people are suspicious of that. My hunch is that GetItRightAlberta will only make them more suspicious.

  7. Brendan

    Hey Darren,

    The site sets out a clear position, without question. As we state on the site: “We are asking the Alberta government to take the time to assess the implications of the ARRP recommendations before endorsing any new legislation. We encourage you to do the same.” To claim anything else would obviously raise red flags.

    But as I mentioned earlier, and while we clearly state our position, and obviously encourage others to consider it, this site makes no attempt to exclude any point of view from being expressed and communicated to political decision-makers. And we make sure to point to the original report so that Albertans can make up their own mind.

    Let me reiterate. We discussed these issues at length. And I would hope that your previous exposure to past online programs facilitated by H&K (and about which you’ve written), would reaffirm that we take transparency very seriously. That said, and given the issues identified in my first response, we feel we reached a fair compromise that respected our principles of disclosure and avoided positioning this group as something it is not while, at the same time, respecting individual privacy. And that extends from the registration of the URL, through our dealings with media, and in how the site itself is structured to enable all points of view to be expressed to MLA’s (and to the press). I would also add that everyone who sends a letter to their MLA – for or against – receives an email copy to ensure that what they wrote is what they sent.

    And as of this morning, nearly 5000 Albertans have affirmed they are OK with this (and I’d be happy to send you a screen cap affirming this, if needed).

    And that’s important. In this Web 2.0 world, it is ultimately the masses that will set the standards of engagement, and decide whether we’ve met those standards. So while there will always be those who, no matter what we say, will question our motives given who we are and the industry itself, there will also be those who (I hope) are more like yourself, who may not like the compromise we reached (and whose standards are obviously different), but are willing to try to understand it and are prepared to discuss it. But ultimately, I would suggest that the crowd has spoken through their participation and engagement on the site.

    Are we going ignore the issues raised here? Not at all, and there’s already a lot of discussion happening here at H&K. And I can guarantee that we’ll be applying lessons learned to future campaigns.

    Finally, thanks for allowing me to discuss these issues on your blog.

  8. darren

    Thanks for this. That sounds like your final word on it, so here’s mine:

    You’ve differentiated between a site that is an ‘enabling tool’ and an advocacy site. That’s entirely artificial–nearly every advocacy site that I’ve seen enables its visitors to contact government officials or private companies. It’s an exceptionally common call to action among lobbying sites.

    Plus, GetItRightAlberta.com features a ton of content–at least 20 pages by my count–advocating for a specific position. That, to me, disqualifies your ‘enabling tool’ justification. It’s an advocacy site, pure and simple. The ’email your MLA’ is just a feature.

    I don’t think that those who fund lobbying campaigns should remain private. Even given that, I don’t understand why your clients wish to retain their anonymity.

    Congratulations on the scope of the campaign, but saying that “5000 Albertans are okay with this” doesn’t really justify your position. It’s faulty logic, not least because you don’t cite the total number of site visitors. More tellingly, half a million people smoke in Alberta. Does that mean we shouldn’t have anti-smoking ads or labels on cigarette packages?

    In every instance, most people don’t care about any particular issue. Most people don’t care about DRM in iTunes songs, or invasive security at airports, and so forth. The majority doesn’t care about much, frankly, and that’s no justification for poor behaviour. Crowds, as I’m sure you know, aren’t particularly wise.

    The lack of any actual companies or individuals on the site raises plenty of warning signs. Why not address your clients’ need for privacy on the site? That ought to be a ‘frequently asked question’ from any thinking individual, on either side of the debate.

    Appropriate transparency would include, at a minimum:

    * On the site, naming the organizations and individuals who paid for the site.

    * Indicating H&K’s participation on the site, and linking to it from somewhere on http://www.hillandknowlton.ca/.

    * Using far less vague language than “We are asking the Alberta government to take the time to assess the implications of the ARRP recommendations before endorsing any new legislation.” You and your clients want the Alberta government to take a particular decision, not just ‘take the time to assess’. Why not just say so, clearly and simply?

    That would have been the transparency that H&K claims to treasure. If you’d taken those three steps, as a non-Albertan, I’d have been happy to ignore the site.

  9. Lisa

    This has been an interesting discussion to read.

    From Brendan’s first post:
    “These are folks who, for sure, have an interest in this issue as employees, owners of companies…who felt that their very involvement in the industry should not taint the objectives of the site.”

    But. It. Does. And hiding it doesn’t help.

  10. James

    I agree, very interesting thread to read. An additional $0.02, for what it’s worth:

    ‘An argumentum ad populum (Latin: “appeal to the people”), in logic, is a fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many or all people believe it; it alleges that “If many believe so, it is so.” In ethics this argument is stated, “If many find it acceptable, it is acceptable.”‘

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

    Interest is interest. A site trying to masquerade as a public interest site, funded by a clearly interested industry, paying a top-flight, expensive PR firm, isn’t neutral. For instance, who are the photos of the average Albertans?

    My first reaction is that the site is subtle fearmongering, trying to scare Albertans with classic bully tactics, saying, in effect, ‘if you raise the royalties all these average folks will be hurt because the oil and gas companies will have to lay them off.’

    ‘Concerned citizens’ are not all citizens. I think a safe bet is that ‘concerned citizens’ are financially interested citizens who don’t want to see any change because they make their money from the present conditions. Ironically, an increase in royalties would be intended to spread the financial wealth more evenly from ‘concerned citizens’ to all citizens of Alberta.

  11. Brendan

    Darren, first off, apologies if I sounded as though I was shutting off the valve for further discussion, and I hope we get a chance to debate this more fully in person. I appreciate your candour and your point of view (and those of all who have contributed).

    As I mentioned, we will be reviewing all aspects of this campaign to ensure we meet the standards we’ve set for ourselves and which the industry expects of us. And I definitely will be blogging on this in the near future, as I see a number of issues at play including privacy and localization (as they relate to transparency).

    And the latter point should not be underestimated (and which we only touched on briefly earlier). Which is that this site essentially had a shelf life of just 2 weeks. And that is important to this debate. With such a short lifespan, the vast majority of Albertans who visit the site will arrive largely from two sources: the first being word of mouth driven by the companies and individuals behind the site, and which is then passed on to friends, family and colleagues. The second being discussion of this campaign in the media. Very few (and our stats bear this out), simply find the site without already being informed through context provided by the media (who spoke publicly with several members of this group) or through the direct recommendation or discussion with the folks behind the site, and those who support their position (individuals and companies alike). In essence, many will know who is behind the site, before they even visit. So whereas Gene felt that the site could be perceived as “standalone”, that might not in fact be the case as it relates to a campaign that has a very short window of opportunity to reach out to Albertans.

    I want to be clear. This site does not pretend to be neutral in the position it endorses, nor to disguise the interests behind it (representatives of which who have been active in the media) or facilitators of the campaign (being H&K). Are we “fearmongering”? That’s certainly a matter of opinion depending on which side of the issue you are on, and we make sure to point to reports that substantiate the position of our clients. And while we do advocate a certain position (and attempt to substantiate it), the focus of the site is ultimately the “call to action”, and the success of the site will be contingent upon how Albertans respond to that call to action.

    All that to say, this is an important debate, and even the perception of lack of transparency is something we want to avoid, and we’ll be addressing this issue in future campaigns.

  12. darren

    Brendan: These debates can go on forever, so I didn’t want to needlessly prolong things.

    I’m not sure how your arguments about the site not existing in vacuum affect the transparency issue. I just read three articles (in addition to the aforementioned TV appearance) that mention the site. One of the articles cites a supporting company, and indicates that Hill and Knowlton built the site. The others disclose nothing specific.

    My sampling of the wider media campaign doesn’t indicate much additional transparency. Did I miss additional mentions of participating companies? The Edmonton Journal article seems to be the only reference to Hill and Knowlton’s participation. Is that correct?

    Incidentally, did you issue a media release about this project? I did a pretty thorough search, and couldn’t find one. I’m not usually an advocate of releases, but that would’ve been a natural spot to add some transparency.

    In summary, here’s what I see:

    * No companies or individuals named on the website.
    * Only one company named in one of the four media hits I reviewed.
    * H&K mentioned in the same article, and via WHOIS look-up. No other connections between H&K and the project, as far as I can tell.
    * No links from H&K’s website, or reference to the project.
    * Hill and Knowlton’s name not on the website.

    In marketing, as in physics, ‘the perception of lack of transparency’ is the same thing to the viewer, isn’t it?

  13. Anon

    As a layperson with no specific industry experience in shaping public opinion, allow me to comment on “perception”.

    It appears to me that Brendan of H&K is in damage control mode, based upon his numerous postings here, and elsewhere since at least Oct 5th.

    Shortly after making his first entry here,(three minutes later according to online blog entries) he advised Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog of his post, and ended with “Welcome your thoughts”.
    http://www.desmogblog.com/pr-giant-launches-alberta-astroturf-group#comment

    Richard subsequently asked Brendan for info on who was backing the site, and after reviewing some of Brendan’s entries here, ended with:

    As I speculate, I have the words, “secretive” and “industry-funded” ringing in my ears. And whenever I try to speak the word “grassroots,” my mouth automatically says: “Astroturf! Astroturf! Astroturf!”

    Brendan never replied to address Richard’s concerns or question.

    Rather, it appears to me that, in damage control mode, he has tried to downplay the shortcomings of the site, suggesting H&K is in a learning phase on “Web 2.0”:
    Are we going ignore the issues raised here? Not at all, and there’s already a lot of discussion happening here at H&K. And I can guarantee that we’ll be applying lessons learned to future campaigns

    and has been more than happy to try to move the debate down to, essentially, shop talk amongst industry players.

    I don’t buy it. Especially coming from:

    H&K Canada’s Vice President, Digital Communications, Brendan is a 10-year veteran who currently busies himself in the areas of, well, Digital Communications and Social Media, specifically helping organizations more effectively use the web and its associated tools and technologies — flash, blogs etc. — to inform, educate and engage their target audiences.
    http://blogs.hillandknowlton.com/blogs/brendanhodgson/about.aspx

    Up to maybe one year ago, I wasn’t familiar with the term “astroturf”, nor of some of the nefarious strategies used by H&K in other campaigns. My knowledge is derived, largely, as a result of visiting DeSmogBlog’s site, and reading numerous articles related to it.

    To my skeptical mind, this GetItRightAlberta.ca site is simply one piece of a larger strategy involving many communications strategies, in differing venues, with a wider range of industry players.

    But, it could prove to be the weak link that partly negates H&K’s efforts on its royalty review communications strategy.

    So, thanks Darren and others for pursuing this.

    And since Brendan indicated he would be “happier to respond to someone who practices what they preach on transparency”, I’ll just sit back and watch what happens.

  14. Holly Stick

    It’s not as if Hill and Knowlton are innocents who just accidently got the website wrong. It’s a big company; and Creekside points out what they did in the First Gulf War.

    “…Previously Hill and Knowlton sold the American people on the first Gulf War using imaginary babies being thrown out of imaginary incubators.
    Remember Nayirah, the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who was coached by Hill and Knowlton to pose for the cameras as the poor traumatized hospital volunteer who witnessed the baby-throwing and whose life was now consequently in danger?…”

    http://creekside1.blogspot.com/2007/10/getitrightorelsealbertaca.html#links

  15. Jim McCormick

    Brendan:

    I am the Jim McCormick that appeared on Breakfast Television on October 2.

    The whole idea behind Get it Right Alberta was borne over a discussion amongst concerned individuals, most of us having survived the NEP debacle that took us nearly two decades to recover from.

    We are professionals in our chosen fields. We consciously chose an experienced, professional firm in Hill and Knowlton to assist us in communicating our message.

    That simple.

    Oh, and the costs. . . Well, they are coming out of the pockets of individuals such as myself and some smaller businesses. And Teague Exploration, the company that I founded, has not put a penny into it.

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