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    The Program Big Oil's PR Firm Uses to 'Convert Average Citizens'

    Written by Brian Merchant

    The ​CEO of the world’s largest PR firm has a policy when it comes to campaigns that focus on the environment. “We do not work with astroturf groups and we have never created a website for a client with the intent to deny climate change," Richard Edelman wrote in a blog post in August. That may actually turn out to be true. Technically. 

    Edelman may not work with astroturf groups. Instead, it appears to prefer to build them itself, from the ground up, using sophisticated proprietary software platform designed to “convert” advocates and then "track" their behavior.

    New documents obtained by Greenpeace and shared with Motherboard illustrate the extensive, meticulous planning that has gone into at least one of Edelman’s proposed astroturf campaigns, aimed at helping TransCanada mobilize “grassroots” support for its effort to build a new pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Quebec.

    Astroturfing is the increasingly popular tactic wherein corporations sponsor front groups or manufacture the appearance of grassroots support to simulate a genuine social movement that is rallying for goals in line with their profit motive. In the past, astroturf efforts have used paid actors, company employees, and media-heavy websites. But the program Edelman pitches in its own reports goes even deeper.

    The new papers detail an in-depth proposal—part sales pitch, part action plan—put together by Edelman's Calgary office, suggesting that TransCanada combat environmental groups by mounting one such manufactured “grassroots advocacy” campaign. Those environmentalists are ​currently organizing to oppose the Energy East pipeline, which TransCanada hopes will be an alternative to the long-delayed Keystone XL, on the grounds that it will disastrously boost carbon emissions and increase the likelihood of a major oil spill.

    Edelman's plan is specifically designed to “[a]dd layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources," according to the documents. It stresses developing “supportive third parties, who can in turn put the pressure on, especially when TransCanada can't.” In other words, the goal would be to attack environmentalists head on with supporters recruited by, but not necessarily directly affiliated with, Edelman and TransCanada.

    In one document titled "Digital Grassroots Advocacy Implementation Plan" and dated May 20th, 2014, Edelman explain that its "Grassroots Mobilization Program”—an astroturfing campaign by any other name—should begin with an “action center website." The document also suggests using a “technologically distinct subdomain” like action.energyeastpipeline.com. Come November, that very site is live, and it is run by TransCanada.

    This shows that Edelman and TransCanada are indeed working on executing at least some version of the plan outlined in the documents. 

    When reached for comment, an Edelman spokesperson would only reply, "We do not talk about the work we do for clients." (Mr. Edelman has ceased returning my requests for comment since I published an unflattering report about his contradictory policy towards clients that deny climate change.) A spokesman for TransCanada confirmed to both the New York Times and the Huffington Post that “we have moved forward with implementing certain components of the strategy,” though it denied embracing the third party elements.

    “We have every reason to believe they're doing this,” Greenpeace research director Mark Floegal told me. “They've at least got a pre-contract if not a full contract.”

    The documents quite literally contain a blueprint to build and mobilize a movement—not unlike the Energy Citizens group Edelman helped the American Petroleum Institute assemble to oppose climate legislation in 2009—to publicly rally in favor of the contentious Energy East pipeline

    Assuming TransCanada’s reps are correct, and the company has indeed declined to embrace the "Grassroots Advocacy Plan," it’s still an eye-opening look into the detailed mechanics of precisely how the world’s biggest PR firm attempts to harness data collection and execute online outreach to, in its words, “convert” average citizens into pro-corporate, pro-oil “advocates.”

    Every advocate will be tagged and tracked based on how they perform over time

    Edelman’s plans to build out astroturf support are remarkably well-developed and technologically, at least for a company that claims to have a policy of no involvement with astroturf groups. In the documents, the PR firm outlines its goal to raise 35,000 advocates, primarily online, using social media, targeted advertising, internal and external websites, and email lists. 

    “Edelman will develop online advertising units (Facebook advertisements, Twitter cards, banner ads, email newsletter copy, etc.) designed to draw in logically interested parties and encourage them to sign up to learn more about and advocate for Energy East,” the firm explains.

    All of the above will be tracked and organized using a proprietary program it calls the Multiplier platform—a customer relationship management (CRM) program built out of the ubiquitous Salesforce.com software.

    CRM, for the unfamiliar (a lucky lot, I might add) is as ​Webopedia defines it, enterprise software used “to help businesses manage customer data and customer interaction, access business information, automate sales... allowing businesses to gain actionable customer insights.”

    That’s what Edelman’s Multiplier platform does, but not with the aim of moving supermarket inventory or boosting online sales, but for generating vocal proponents and supporters for, in this case, a tar sands pipeline. 

    Edelman acquired the Multiplier software when it bought Grassroots Enterprise in 2009, and has advertised its grassroots outreach capabilities to clients ever since. But details about how it uses said software have proven elusive (calls to Edelman’s Grassroots division went unanswered, too).

    Using the software, the digital grassroots advocacy plan focuses on identifying “logical supporters”—union workers who want new pipeline jobs, for example, or Transcanada employees who want to keep theirs—online, and then applying a “methodical and deliberate approach designed to convert average citizen into issue activists.”

    To introduce to you Edelman’s plan to “convert average citizens” into corporate activists, I’m going to have to quote from the document at length—it’s worth spending some time with the language here. Many PR campaigns border on being propaganda to some extent, but few present an explicit methodology for “converting” citizens not into consumers, but into pro-pipeline ideological warriors, or “true champions” as Edelman hopes they will become.

    According to Edelman, creating a corporate activist entails understanding "how to deepen and broaden each individual's commitment to our cause, using targeted messaging and behavior tracking to directly appeal to the individual's trigger points and develop them from a supporter to an activist to a champion."

    “We refer to this as our Stakeholder Progression Model," reads another report, dated May 15, 2014 and titled "Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document."

    "Jointly, these processes create the outputs we need to achieve the outcomes we desire; in short, they provide us a rich base of advocates who passionately understand and support our cause and are willing—more often than not—to do what's asked of them," the report continues.

    Unfortunately, not every potential advocate will fully and totally become an obedient drone. That’s where the surveillance comes in.

    “To be clear, not every advocate will do everything we ask of him or her, and not every advocate will have the willingness or ability to become a true champion," reads the document. "Accordingly, we must track and monitor how individuals behave and perform so that we can provide them with the materials calls to action that best align with where they are and what they are able to offer—while always pushing them to do just a bit more.”

    In case you didn't believe me.

    Even those converted champions that perform up to Edelman’s standards would be tracked, too, however. “Every grassroots advocate record will be tagged and tracked based on how/where they were recruited, which message stream they responded to and how they perform over time," the report states. "These metrics will enable us both to tailor outbound communications to user preferences and to enhance future recruitment efforts.”

    The world’s biggest PR company has, in other words, outlined, in great detail, how it anticipates targeting everyday citizens and convincing them to become pro-oil support troops, and how it intends to collect data on those aren’t quite ready to rally to the cause and how to push them over the edge. It is collecting a trove of data on citizens to better “convert” future supporters into “advocates,” even “champions.”

    “We've never seen something with quite this level of depth before,” Floegal said. “We've got the whole playbook.”

    But Edelman wants its converts on the cheap, too. That’s why it focuses its efforts online in the first place.

    “Our key metric of success is the cost per acquisition (CPA) of a new grassroots advocate,” the May 20 document reads. “Historically, online acquisition techniques—including microtargeted online advertising, email list rental, newsletter inserts, social media advertising and direct partnerships (blogs, communities, aligned organizations)—have proven to be the most effective.”

    Edelman/TransCanada would reach out to potential supporters on, say, Facebook, energy blogs, and personal emails and monitor the results in real-time. “We will also conduct real-time message testing across each channel/platform by supporter profile to determine which messages are most resonant and likely to lead to conversion," the report says.

    Which brings us back to Edelman’s Multiplier. “All supporters will be added to our Multiplier CRM solution, where data detailing how they were recruited will be captured,” the document explains. “The tools we use include a robust database back-end for collecting and storing information about advocates… Multiplier allows us to synthesize data from every element of our campaigns into intelligence that helps us surface insights for more effective outreach.”

    A true champion in the making.

    While it sounds uniquely sinister coming from an oil company, this software is likely not too far removed from, say, the sort that the Obama team used to identify probable voters or Rite Aid deploys to pigeonhole shoppers. 

    Still, if citizens who entered their email addresses onto an Energy East website or liked TransCanada on Facebook knew that they were going to be tracked from there on out, they might think twice before doing so. (Edelman reasons a “simple opt-in disclaimer that is broad enough to allow flexibility while also being sufficiently transparent” will ensure the practice is legal.) More than that, these documents underline how sophisticated corporate efforts to “mobilize grassroots advocates”—to grow their own astroturf—have become.

    It's too early to say whether or not any of this will prove effective, but we may be about to find out. According to the New York Times, which was given a copy of the documents along with Motherboard, TransCanada’s spokesman “confirmed that the company had followed Edelman’s advice to create a network of allies.”

    Furthermore, these documents suggest that Edelman is using its “conversion” software in the US, too.

    Edelman’s pitch notes that “Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and Haliburton (and many more) have all made key investments in building permanent advocacy assets and programs to support their lobbying, outreach, and policy efforts. In launching a program like this, TransCanada will be in good company with a strong roadmap to follow.” 

    Greenpeace's Floegal believes that Edelman's inclusion of those companies in its report suggests that the PR firm helped run their advocacy-building campaigns as well.

    “My experience with PR companies is, they won't say who their clients who have done something good, they are usually referring to their own work,” Floegal said. “When you see another company's name in a document, it's usually a client.” 

    Edelman doesn’t make all of its clients public—it famously won’t admit nor deny involvement with ALEC, the controversial conservative lobbying group. But if Floegal is right, then Edelman would have already been applying similar programs domestically on behalf of the biggest oil companies in the US, since as far back as 2009, when it acquired Grassroots Enterprises. Is Edelman in the process of converting “true champions” for Haliburton and Exxon? Its multimillion dollar ​work with the American Petroleum Institute is well documented; we currently have no way of knowing how Edelman has deployed its Grassroots Multiplier stateside.

    Again, Edelman (and perhaps TransCanada) are hardly alone here. Most political campaigns, many major retailers and large businesses, and even liberal NGOs use advanced database software to try to identify and maintain voters and customers. It probably shouldn't be surprising that in the age of big data, PR firms and oil companies are tapping robust analytics and tracking tools to try to convert ideological proponents. 

    As many large-scale data collection operations go, it's both discomfiting and absurd—few browsers are likely worried they'll be transformed into a "true champion" for Big Oil by Facebook propaganda, but few are also comfortable knowing PR firms and pipeline companies are tracking their online movements.  And by simultaneously denying involvement with any astroturf groups at all and running what amounts to an in-house digital astroturf generator, Edelman is pioneering a murky future for public relations indeed.