Last month Forest Nova Scotia, an industry group representing the most powerful shapers of forestry policy in Nova Scotia spearheaded a propaganda campaign against the Biodiversity Act. The Liberal government of Iain Rankin had introduced the Act on March 11, calling it legislation that would “preserve and protect Nova Scotia’s unique ecosystems, wild animals, plants, lakes and forests for future generations.” Not even two weeks later, as the result of the relentless “Stop Bill 4” ad campaign to sabotage the Biodiversity Act before it had even had its day in front of the Law Amendments Committee where everyone could have their say, the government caved and gutted the Bill. This, the first of two articles about the campaign to “Stop Bill 4,” looks at some of the ethical questions it raises and why it so disturbs a communications specialist and a renewable energy professional.
On March 13, 2021, just two days after Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter introduced the Biodiversity Act, a full page colour ad appeared in the Chronicle Herald, titled “Calling All Private Landowners” and warning them that new legislation — referred to only as Bill 4 — would restrict what they could do on their “private land.” Without nuance or context, it declared in future simple tense that:
Agriculture, Christmas tree growing, housing and road construction, forestry management, farming livestock, and development are all activities that will be impacted. [emphasis added]
The only name that appeared on the ad was “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition.”
Four days later on CBC’s Information Morning Preston Mulligan interviewed Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop. Mulligan pointed out that Forest Nova Scotia had paid for the ad, and he then coaxed a confession from Bishop that in fact the “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” didn’t actually exist, that it was “not a formal organization.”
“We didn’t feel we needed to go that far,” said Bishop.
“A faux ‘coalition’ of pretend ‘concerned private landowners’”
In other words, the so-called “Coalition” was an Astroturf organization, which the Center for Media and Democracy defines as “apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.”
Nevertheless, the “Coalition” continued to bombard Nova Scotians with more ads — online, on local radio stations, in the Chronicle Herald and other Saltwire papers.
The messaging became even more strident, aimed at scaring landowners with warnings that “Bill 4 puts control of your lands in the hands of Halifax activists and politicians.” A second ad in the Chronicle Herald made this declaration:
Halifax activists will use Bill 4 to stop farming, forestry, recreation and housing on private lands. If you hike, fish, hunt, snowshoe, ATV or snowmobile Bill 4 will stop you from doing those activities on the private lands you enjoy today.
Less than a week after the Biodiversity Act was introduced, the so-called “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” — which Bishop said was “not a formal organization” — had established a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle (@CPLC_NS), and even had its own logo and acronym, CPLC.
The intensity of the campaign and toxicity it unleashed prompted one forestry insider and supporter of the Biodiversity Act to tell the Examiner it was the “most Trump-like thing” he had ever seen in Nova Scotia.
Still, it clearly worked.
On March 23, six days before Bill 4 would have a public hearing at the Law Amendments Committee, Rankin’s government caved and issued a late-afternoon statement listing changes to the Act “to address concerns from provincial stakeholders.”
The changes removed “biodiversity emergency orders, offences and fines from the act,” and limited its scope “to Crown lands unless permission is given on private lands.”
The government had abruptly removed all the teeth from the Biodiversity Act because of a powerful propaganda campaign.
Yet Nova Scotians had no way of knowing who all had paid for and orchestrated the poisonous campaign that spooked the public and scared the government so much that it gutted an important piece of environmental legislation. (We’ll come back to the sponsors and supporters of the campaign in Part 2 of this series.)
Even before the government suddenly amended Bill 4, forestry professionals and environmentalists were contacting the Examiner to express their dismay about the tone of the campaign, and the misinformation that it was spreading like the plague.
Afterwards, the same people were back in touch, expressing their fears that a dangerous precedent had been set. Having seen how quickly the government would cave to populist fervour whipped up by the propaganda and fear-mongering, they said they feared that whoever was behind the divisive and vicious campaign would continue using the same strategy to attack any progressive environmental legislation or measures any government tried to bring in.
As fellow Examiner contributor Stephen Kimber put it, Iain Rankin “made no attempt to counter their lies with truth.” Wrote Kimber:
Instead, he did what governments here have done since there have been governments here: he caved to those powerful private interests. It almost certainly won’t be his last time.
The faux “coalition” of pretend “concerned private landowners” is gloating and already girding for its next battle.
Professional PR standards
But the criticism of the campaign and its outcome came from more than journalists, environmentalists, and forestry professionals; it also came from people in the communications business and the renewable energy industry.
Sarah Riley is a communications specialist and the director of strategy at R&G, which she describes as a “sustainability agency” that helps “responsible organizations communicate their positive impact, and inspire behaviour change” for “environmental and social good.”
Riley tells the Examiner she was “really shocked” by the campaign against the Biodiversity Act.
“I haven’t seen one [an advertising campaign] this blatantly false,” she says.
I’ve seen organizations advertise their adherence to ecological limits as plusses, saying things like, “We don’t do X or Y damaging activity within three kilometres of the watershed.” But that’s just advertising that you follow the regulations. I think that’s a pretty standard way of communicating to folks that you’re trying to be responsible. But I have not actually seen an advertising campaign in the market that felt this blatantly Astroturf-ish, if that’s a word.
“The whole thing’s totally shady because Forest (Nova Scotia) is a real organization,” Riley says. “But the Coalition is not.”
She says a campaign as large and well-orchestrated would have taken a long time to put together, and involved a large and expensive team of professionals, including strategists, designers, copy writers, layout and production people, with “blended hourly rates from $90 to $200.”
Just one full-page colour ad in the Chronicle Herald costs $7,148.
Riley notes that a project to develop a logo can cost $5,000, and take weeks of back and forth.
As for the whole Stop Bill 4 campaign, Riley says, “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, easily hundreds of thousands.”
The Halifax Examiner contacted Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop, and also the administrators of the social media accounts and website of the “Coalition” to try to find out more about the campaign, who paid for it, how much it cost, when it was prepared, and which PR agency, if any, handled it for them.
Neither Bishop nor the Coalition has replied to the Examiner’s questions about the Stop Bill 4 campaign, which are listed at the end of this article.[i]
“Trump factor” at play
In Riley’s view, the campaign used “inflammatory messaging” and “definitely stepped over a line.”
“This campaign was positioned on a set of blatant lies about what the Biodiversity Act intends to accomplish and protect,” she says.
Riley sees a “sort of Trump factor” at play here, which she says has brought “a rise in no accountability for lies and blatant misinformation” among leaders that “trickles down” and “poises people to be in an argument.” She adds:
Some of our business leaders and government leaders are willing to create a narrative that inflames that kind of attitude. And so I think this ad campaign did that. In essence, they had sort of positioned their solicitation for testimonials in such a way as to get that type of feedback. They didn’t say, “Here’s what the Biodiversity Act says verbatim, and we’d love to get your unbiased reaction to this,” or try to do some education around it and see what people felt, one way or the other. The ad campaign was positioned more as: “This Biodiversity Act is taking away your rights. This Biodiversity Act will prevent you from enjoying your own property.”
And if you position the message that way, you will absolutely get inflammatory rhetoric back from people, because I feel like that’s just the post-Trump world we’re living in. And people are primed like a fuse to have an argument or to be ready to be defensive about something. It seems like the outreach for this [Stop Bill 4 campaign] tried to tap into that short fuse. I mean, there’s education that’s neutral, and then there’s poking people with misinformation to get them angry. There’s a big difference between those two things. Responsible leadership, responsible research, and responsible stakeholder engagement listens to people and presents them with an unbiased, educated view of the information, and then listens and attempts to understand them. It doesn’t tell them what they should think and try to make them mad about it.
“I’m very worried about the ability of a misinformation campaign to stoke anger in such a way,” Riley says. “That’s really scary for our political leaders … I understand the pause that would give someone who’s trying to push this legislation forward.”
Riley says she would like to issue a challenge to whoever developed and ran the campaign, “to start making value-based decisions and start being responsible” when choosing clients, “because you are complicit at best and at worst you’re participating in misinformation that is actually damaging. I just could not fathom how anybody in good conscience could take months doing that.”
Riley questions whether the ads meet advertising standards set by Canada, and wonders aloud who ultimately bears responsibility for spreading misinformation — Forest Nova Scotia and whoever else may have sponsored the campaign, the media outlets that agreed to run its ads, or the agency that may have developed the campaign.
Truthful, fair and accurate?
The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, created by the advertising industry in 1963 as the “cornerstone of advertising self-regulation,” sets “the criteria for acceptable advertising in Canada.”
When it comes to “accuracy and clarity,” the Code states:
(a) Advertisements must not contain, or directly or by implication make, inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations.
(b) Advertisements must not omit relevant information if the omission results in an advertisement that is deceptive or misleading. [emphasis added]
The code also states that advertisements must not “play upon fears to mislead the consumer.” [emphasis added]
As for advocacy advertising, which is what the “Stop Bill 4” campaign appears to be, the Code says:
The Code does not prohibit or restrict any particular position or argument, provided that in communicating its message the ad complies with the standards of truthful, fair, and accurate advertising prescribed under the Code. [emphasis added]
The Examiner contacted Saltwire, which owns the Chronicle Herald and other papers that published the Stop Bill 4 ads, to ask if it has a set of standards for advertisements it runs, and if so, if those would include checking that advertisements do not contain misinformation, or if the veracity of claims in ads are the responsibility of the client who places ads.
A sales manager replied that she had sent the email to someone in a better position to speak to the context of the “Stop Bill 4” ads, but as of this writing, that person has not replied.
Other industries need the Biodiversity Act
Riley believes the campaign must have been handled by a large PR firm, and would dearly love to know which one.
She is not alone.
Another person who expressed concerns to the Examiner about the campaign works with renewable energy, and has asked to remain anonymous for business reasons.
He says he was struck by how “mean and aggressive the ad campaign was” and the “lies in the ad material.”
“It wasn’t something I’m used to seeing in Nova Scotia, in the Maritimes, and it came up very quickly, and it was saying things that weren’t true,” he says.
He found the use of the term “Halifax activists” in the ads “just disgusting.”
“You don’t say that, it’s a term that should not be used,” he says. “It’s directly targeting part of the population that does good things. That’s one thing about the campaign. Number two is the urban-rural divide. They latched onto that and tried to split people.”
He says he wants to know who was responsible for the campaign, and if an ad agency was involved, which one. If he knew which agency it was, he says he would not do any business with it.
“My business and the renewable energy sector uses PR firms to help us with our print material and marketing,” he tells the Examiner. “I would never contract this company. That’s the power I have.” He adds:
It’s kind of in line with the divestment movement, kind of the next step. You see this happening in some of the bigger cities in the US, where there’s a movement to not contract these second-tier companies that are affiliated with the oil and gas industry.
What makes the ad campaign even more egregious, he says, is that it also affects his job and his business. He says for the past decade, he has been going to the Department of Natural Resources (now the Department of Lands and Forestry or DLF) to speak with their species-at-risk biologists, asking for data he needs when trying to develop projects responsibly to avoid critical habitat for endangered species.
“They just don’t have the data and the data are not being collected,” he says, and that frustrates him and some of the species-at-risk biologists. The problem, as he sees it, is that the DLF biologists have their hands tied because they:
…are in a department that is mandated with protecting biodiversity and identifying and trying to protect species at risk. But at the same time, that same department is another arm of forestry, with former private industry forestry executives that are now in kind of higher level government jobs in that same department who are preventing that data from being collected, or doing what they can to maybe slow down the identification of species or identification of critical habitat to the benefit of forestry and resource development. So that is the conflict of interest within that department.
He says the Biodiversity Act was exactly what was needed to legally mandate and speed up the collection of data on species at risk in the province. “I think the Act was the ultimate tool for that from inside,” he says.
That “ultimate tool,” however, was sabotaged by a vitriolic ad campaign spearheaded by Forest Nova Scotia and friends, whom we’ll take a closer look at in the second article in this series.
- Have you registered your group “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” as an entity or official organization? If so, where?
- If so, how many members do you have?
- Who is responsible for your web page, and who manages it? [https://stopbill4.com/]
- One of the questions asked on your Coalition web page is answered by Todd Burgess, Forest Nova Scotia forestry outreach coordinator. Does the Forest NS outreach coordinator manage this web page? Does Forest NS receive funding to cover Mr. Burgess’s costs from any government source? If not, how are his costs paid?
- Who funds your coalition?
- Is there a public relations firm involved? Please provide details if there is.
Questions about the Stop Bill 4 campaign that were sent on April 8 to Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop:
- According to this press release from the province, last year Forest NS received $1 million to deliver the private roads program, in addition to the usual $720,000 the government provides Forest NS for private woodland roads in the province. Did Forest NS receive any government funding (federal or provincial) in addition to this $1,720,000?
- Did Forest Nova Scotia fund the Stop Bill 4 campaign (the total cost of all the media ads and their design, social media for the Concerned Private Landowners Coalition and graphic design) on its own? If so, what was the cost? If not, what other financing went into it?
- The first Coalition ad appeared in the Chronicle Herald on March 13, as I understand it, two days after the government tabled the Biodiversity Act in the legislature, although you did say on CBC Information Morning that at that point the coalition was not a formal organization. When did Forest NS first begin planning this campaign? What PR agency did you engage?
- Does someone from Forest Nova Scotia administer the CPLC social media? or is it done by the public relations professionals who put together the messaging and the ads for the campaign to stop Bill 4?
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