Alberta energy war room must avoid online morass, preaching to choir: experts

CALGARY — Tzeporah Berman only learned of her cameo appearance at an Alberta government news conference about its so-called energy war room after a flood of nasty messages.

Industry advocate Robbie Picard held a poster calling the prominent environmentalist an "enemy of the oilsands" as he introduced Premier Jason Kenney at the Calgary event.

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Berman says dozens of violent, sexist social media messages and a few frightening voicemails followed.

"The idea of putting someone's face on a poster and holding it up at a government press conference — I've never seen that before," says the longtime opponent of oilsands expansion and international program director at Stand.Earth, a grassroots environmental group.

The Kenney government aims to get its $30-million Calgary-based war room running this summer. The goal, Kenney has said, is to fight against what he calls a foreign-funded "campaign of lies and defamation" that he says has caused economic hardship by landlocking Alberta crude.

Kenney has said one measure of the war room's success would be improved public opinion about pipelines and resource development. Political observers say that requires crafting messages that resonate outside Alberta while avoiding social media mudslinging or preaching to the choir.

Kenney spokeswoman Christine Myatt says personal threats and abuse are never acceptable and urges those who disagree with Berman to do so respectfully.

Picard, who runs the Oilsands Strong Facebook page, says unleashing abuse was not the intention of singling out Berman, but he added "professional protesters" like her should be held to account at a time when Alberta is struggling.

"There's people in Alberta who are losing everything."

Aside from the potential for online vitriol, the war room is problematic because the focus should be on tackling climate change, Berman says.

"He's wasting precious time," she says of Kenney.

Many details, including who will lead the war room, remain to be fleshed out. Kenney has said it's to use a mixture of advertising, publicity and social media and that staff will be able to fire volleys without having to wait hours or days for approval.

The premier feels the soft-power approach of the past has not worked.

"There's been this notion, amongst many in the Canadian energy industry, that if we just keep our heads down and try not to be noticed and be low-profile and defensive, that somehow those organizations will walk away and focus maybe on Saudi Arabia or Russia or Venezuela," Kenney said at the news conference.

"The weakness has been an invitation for an increasingly aggressive and increasingly dishonest campaign."

Mount Royal University political scientist David Taras says the war room, by its very nature, is set up for conflict and that creates pitfalls.

"Give someone a hammer and they're going to find something to hammer. Sometimes the best policy is not to respond. Sometimes the best policy is to allow someone else to respond. Sometimes the best policy is just to listen to others and watch the debate unfold," he says.

"You can't be drawn into the morass of the internet. You have to be able to speak on behalf of Albertans in a way that Albertans can be proud of."

Pollster Janet Brown says she hopes the war room will do some public opinion research early and tailor its message accordingly.

The focus should be on those not firmly entrenched in either the pro- or anti-oil camps, she says.

"If they take messages that make perfect sense to Albertans and just assume they're going to make sense to other Canadians ... that could be problematic."

Brown says the war room would be wise to avoid Twitter, where few minds can be changed, and focus its social media resources elsewhere — such as paid YouTube ads.

"If the war room is just spending their time on Twitter being outrageous, it will probably work in the favour of Greenpeace," Brown says.

Berman says her group has seen more people wanting to donate in recent days, and she and her colleagues are looking to incorporate more compassion into their climate change messaging.

"We have, to a certain extent, been too simplistic or careless about the changes that need to happen. They are going to be hard and it's not easy," she says.

"I understand when Albertans don't want outsiders telling them what to do."

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