Rebranding Canadian Oil and Gas: “The Ethical Choice”

“Governments must not only do well; they must also be seen as doing well.”
– Source/author undetermined.

Ceteris Paribus*, Who Has a Tougher Job – A Business Executive or a Government Executive?

Woodrow Wilson: Quintessential Public Administrator

At a graduate Marketing Management course which I attended in the early 90’s back in my country of origin my professor started a discussion on the topic, “Which is the more challenging job – being a government executive or a business executive? And why?”

Most of my classmates were from private business and industry sector. I was of the minority with just three colleagues coming from the government side in that class of about 30 MBA students. The discussion proved to be a very lively one, with the four of us, the outnumbered government “representatives”, being pretty much on the defensive.

My business sector classmates were either junior executives or full-fledged executives in major private corporations including a number of multinationals. They presented a powerful argument that business executives had the tougher job: a) they were largely evaluated based on real performance; b) their continuance in office was determined by producing measurable results; and c) they did not enjoy “security of tenure” and, thus, could be let go anytime should they fail the test of verifiable performance and results.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: "CEO of the Decade " (Fortune Magazine)

My government confreres and I basically countered by establishing the fact that government was becoming more results-oriented. For instance, KRAs and KPIs were being integrated in government planning and budgeting; also government was quickly adopting into its monitoring and evaluation systems these elements as the primary basis of performance appraisal. I cited the trend as the reason why more and more government executives and candidate executives were going through the MBA route rather than the traditional MPA program.

I noted that while a professional civil servant might indeed manage to remain in government based simply on security of tenure (and avoidance of serious infractions that could be considered basis of “removal for cause” action), still one’s meaningful progress in professional civil service was then becoming increasingly dependent on results-based performance.

The clincher (of sorts) in my argument was the quote above which I expanded on citing direct personal experience (i.e., as an observer and support staff to my agency’s CEO). The statement itself came from an American Public Administration author (whose name and the title of whose text I cannot recall anymore).

Majority of my business sector classmates loathed the idea of almost daily facing media or responding to media (usually hostile media), and frequently appearing before some Congressional committee to show evidence the agency is “doing well”. Such government executives would then hope that Congress and the general public would be persuaded and would perceive the organization as indeed “doing well”. Failing that, one would then have the unpleasant prospect of his agency suffering some significant reduction in the succeeding year’s appropriations and/or face very rough sailing during Congressional budget hearings.

Government Executive Facing Media

Public Perceptions – Whether Positive of Negative – are Powerful “Soft Data”

The trouble with public perceptions of “doing well” or “NOT doing well” is that they are seldom based on KRAs or KPIs. Data analysts refer to perceptions as “soft data” which may bear a very tenuous connection to facts (or hard data). Yet perceptions carry such a weight in the market of public opinions that careers are known to have been built or un-made based on such soft data.

To actually produce good results and at the same time convince the usually critical public and media that government is doing very well may be a distinct challenge government executives have to face. Contrast this to the situation of a business executive who has to concern himself mainly with producing results, particularly as regards profitability, market shares and ROI, and packaging them in a factual report that is intelligible to his board of directors and the company’s shareholders. His rise or fall is governed by clear metrics.

One is tempted to say this is a definitely simpler and more straightforward expectation — or so it seems.

Business executive at annual stockholders' meeting

Public Relations for Canadian Oil and Gas Industry

The ongoing, and rather controversial, re-branding campaign launched by Alykhan Velshi of seeks to contrast “Ethical Oil” from Canada vs. “Conflict Oil” from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela, in particular, and North Africa plus the rest of the Middle East, in general.

A brief historical background is given at which says …

“[It]  began as a blog created by Alykhan Velshi to promote the ideas in Ezra Levant’s bestselling book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.

“The blog, in addition to rebutting inaccurate and unfair criticisms of the oilsands, also sought to engage its readers: inviting them to write letters to their local newspapers, call talk radio stations and suggest ideas for Access to Information requests to expose the network of anti-oilsands lobbyists who meet regularly with senior Environment Canada officials.

“Within a month, based on the generosity of its readers, has become an online community that empowers people to become grassroots community activists on the front-lines of the campaign for ethical oil”.

Conflict Oil vs. Ethical Oil

Mr. Velshi employed seven criteria to project the contrasting view:

1. Democracy;


2. Treatment of women;


3. Treatment of labour;


4. Treatment of environment;


5. Treatment of / commitment to world peace;

World Peace

6. Treatment of alternative lifestyles; and

Alternative Lifestyle

7. Treatment of indigenous/aboriginal peoples.

Indigenous/Aboriginal People

(Note: If you’re interested in viewing the campaign here’s a good Globe and Mail  site to visit.)

Globe and Mail’s caption to the ads reads: “Alykhan Velshi’s eye-popping ads are premised on the notion that oil exports ultimately underwrite the values of those states that produce them. ‘Conflict oil’ funds ‘dictatorship’ and ‘terrorism’ and results in ‘women stoned to death,’ according to the ads.”[boldface type and italics supplied]

Pivotal Element of Rebranding Campaign

Without passing judgment on the accuracy and appropriateness of the comparisons I am of the opinion that the very first criterion – democracy – is the most important consideration. The pivotal element in Canada’s claim to being an ethical nation producing and exporting ethical oil consists in the following set of characteristics:

• Being a strong, well-established, fully functioning democracy, characterized by the openness of its society;
• Very strong adherence to the rule of law, with constitutional rights and freedoms defined and guaranteed by its Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and
• Proven commitment to international human rights.

I won’t daresay Canada is a perfectly ethical nation because no such entity exists in the world today. But surely in terms of “ethicality” Canada is several degrees above the nations producing and exporting so-called “conflict oil”.

Let’s hear it from the head of a key player in Canada’s oil and gas industry – Shell Canada Ltd.:

“Along with Norway, we [Canada] are the most stable, the most reliable and the most democratic of the world’s top 10 oil and gas producers. That’s a distinct competitive advantage given the current turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, where five of the other top 10 are located.”
– Lorraine Mitchelmore, President of Shell Canada Ltd (as quoted from Profiler Magazine, June 2011 issue).

Behaving Like Government

My fearless forecast, however, is that Canadian oil and gas industry will feel a growing pressure to behave like government in regard to necessary measures to convince the world (especially the US and the European Union) that it is “doing well”. Indeed, it must do well, and must be seen (or perceived) as doing well if it has any hopes of expanding or diversifying the market for its oil and gas products.

A caveat, however, had earlier been made by a seasoned practitioner of oil sands public relations — Ken Chapman, president of Edmonton-based Cambridge Strategies Inc. – as quoted in  Alberta Oil Magazine:

“The answer to repairing the tarnished environmental reputation of Alberta and the oil sands lies in real action”, he says. “They’ll have to show what they’re doing to reduce greenhouse gas, and reclaim land.  They’ll also have to show they’ve developed a consciousness about the effects their projects are having on the climate, the economy and the social structure of the province”.

Companies “are making hay while the sun shines,” and pushing ahead with projects that strain the province’s social and environmental fabric, Chapman says. Polling has repeatedly shown that even Albertans, many of whom depend on the energy industry for their livelihoods, are becoming uncomfortable with oil sands development and its environmental effects.[boldface type supplied]

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In an earlier blog I made a bold, and hopefully unpresumptuous, assertion that the new face of corporate social responsibility is sustainability. I wish to amplify it by saying the Canadian oil and gas industry can only succeed in doing well and persuading its publics, domestic as well as global, that the oil sands are doing well by proving it is doing things SUSTAINABLY well.


*Latin for “other things being equal”.

About b., peternolasco

Customer Education Specialist with geoLOGIC Systems Ltd.; keen student and practitioner of corporate adult learning and learning communities in the context of organizational change and development.
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