A native group has claimed a small victory in its public-relations war against a pipeline giant – with the help of Paul Simon.
Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, decided to use the song The Sound of Silence in an advertisement showing the dangers of oil tanker traffic in B.C., because the tune simply fit the bill.
But the choice appears to be turning into a crafty public relations move, as the ad is gaining significant media attention and thousands of clicks online. It's a rival message to Enbridge's continuing media campaign that seeks to gain public support for the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The ad – produced by the CFN, an alliance of first nations on British Columbia's north and central coast and Haida Gwaii – was released on Sunday, the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the worst in history. It began airing on television stations in Northern B.C. on Monday.
"We weren't running around looking for a big name. We were looking for a song that reflected what people would feel like after a spill," said Mr. Sterritt. "We're pleasantly surprised that people have picked up on the fact that Paul Simon is such an icon."
The two-minute ad begins with video of the Exxon Valdez just minutes after it hit the Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, accompanied by live audio of the ship's crew speaking to the Valdez Vessel Traffic Centre as gallons of oil spill into the water. The Sound of Silence fades in and continues as viewers are shown images of oil-covered animals and the massive cleanup effort. The question is then posed: "What if it happened in B.C.?" The video tells viewers a cleanup would cost $21.4-billion in tax dollars, more than 4,000 jobs would be lost, and marine resources could potentially be gone forever.
How the CFN got permission to use the song appears to be resonating with people as much as the video itself. The group wrote Mr. Simon, who had to approve the use of the song in the campaign. Many see this as a Paul Simon endorsement.
"What they've [the CFN] done right is align themselves and leverage his [Mr. Simon's] celebrity for the cause," said Jennifer Maloney, the co-founder of Yulu Public Relations, a Vancouver-based firm that has many non-profit and cause-promoting clients. "Do I think this would have gotten as much ink or play as it would have without Paul Simon? No."
But she added that the CFN did other things right when it comes to small organizations attempting to battle a large company for the hearts and minds of the public. It engaged in "issue hijacking" by releasing the video on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, an issue already on people's minds. They also "pulled at the heartstrings" she says, and images of animals covered in oil, accompanied by ominous lyrics such as "Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again," is the type of video that gets shared extensively on social media.
Mr. Sterritt wouldn't say how much the ad cost to make, or specifically what the CFN paid to use Mr. Simon's song. He did say, however, he thinks it probably cost less than what Enbridge pays to to run one of its ads.
Enbridge has pumped approximately $5-million into its B.C. outreach campaign, according to a company spokesperson. The campaign promises job creation, environment protection and economic stimulus, linking it all together with a catchy tag line: "It's more than a pipeline. It's a path to our future."
An Enbridge spokesperson says the CFN video does not mention any of the positive steps that have been taken to prevent oil spills.
"There's been a lot of changes following the Exxon [Valdez] incident … changes that have really revolutionized the industry," said Todd Nogier. "What they don't say is that oil has been safely transported in and out of ports in British Columbia for decades."
Ms. Maloney says it's too early to gauge the effectiveness of the CFN video, and cautions that there have been many recent examples of campaigns showing steam early on, but fizzling in the following weeks.