The province of New Brunswick has hired the services of international public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to help convince New Brunswickers to support the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec. Hill and Knowlton is notorious for its work on a wide variety of unethical campaigns including selling the Gulf War to the American public, disputing the carcinogenicity of cigarettes, and glossing over the missing ballots of the 2004 American election. During a recent conference in Moncton, Mount Allison University professor, Erin Steuter, provided the following account of the marketing strategies that are being used by the government.
- Glittering generalities – Create positive associations with the deal by using glad words that don’t have any real meaning: progress, moving forward, opportunity.
- Us vs. them – Associate those who raise legitimate concerns with those who believe that Hydro Quebec will tear out the Mactaquac Dam and flood everyone living downriver. Suggest that people who believe anything critical will believe the most far-fetched notions. Bring New Brunswickers onto the side of progress, and those who raise criticism in the category of naysayer. “The government has talked about the various concerns of the people of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as publicity stunts. There’s a real sense that there are ‘special interest groups’ — meaning the working people of New Brunswick.”
- Double speak – Say that you are trying to create self-sufficiency when in fact the proposed deal would create a dependent and even colonial relationship with Quebec.
- Transfer technique – Transfer popular values to the deal whether they fit or not. “In this case there has really been a sort of a greenwashing in which this is supposed to be a good deal for the environment when that’s really not the case.”
- The false analogy – Compare NB Power’s debt to consumer debt. “The premier has been using the credit card payment analogy and talking about how we can’t just keep making these minimum payments forever. It has a resonance of truth with the public because it is true about household debt, but it is not true about the way that the government manages its debt. We know that the utility corporation is in fact paying off its debt while bringing in a profit.”
- The testimonial – Bring out Frank McKenna and prominent New Brunswickers who will benefit from this deal to reassure the public. “Of course this has been a very important issue for the Irvings, so the Irvings have come out very strongly in favour of the deal directly and also through the use of their media empire.”
- The plain folks technique – Use simplistic language to describe a complex deal. “They’ve referred to our ‘neighbour’ Quebec, but we’re talking about political actors; we’re talking about corporate actors; we’re talking about people who have their own vested interests in their own provinces; and those traditions of neighbourliness are completely false in this sense.”
- Card stacking – Stack the cards so that the cards that are valuable are at the top and the cards that are less valuable are at the bottom. “They are blatantly saying that this will cause job increases and the Irving papers have certainly echoed that this is going to be a wonderful boon for New Brunswick when it’s absolutely clear that there will be significant job losses.”
- The false crisis – Fabricate a sense of urgency. “There is a sense that this is dire, that this is urgent, that we’re at risk, that we don’t have a viable energy industry in this province, that there could be a possible rate shock. Then the government steps in and says ‘given this risky, urgent crisis situation we will come in and provide protection, security shelter.”
Time will tell whether New Brunswickers will respond to these marketing techniques, or whether they will look to the facts in order to make up their minds about the proposed deal.