“Sponsored Content” Looks a Lot Like Government Lobbying

Credit: @CalgaryHerald Twitter

Albertans may recall at the end of May this year when Post Media hired Jason Kenney’s former chief of staff Nick Koolsbergen to lobby the United Conservative Party-run Government of Alberta for opportunities in which the commercial content portion of Postmedia could collaborate with Alberta’s $30 million dollar “War Room”. 

Postmedia Content Works launched in 2015 to sell story telling as a marketing concept. Story telling works; good story telling can better reach a desired customer base, increase brand awareness, sell products and also help sway public opinion. 

In the last week, according to Twitter’s Ad Transparency Centre, the Calgary Herald has promoted five stories from its sponsored content featuring: the Alberta Boot Company, Government of Saskatchewan, The Copeman Clinic, Southland Transportation and Brookfield Residentials West Campus Development Trust. One of these things did not look like the others. 

All of the stories are clearly advertisements but the Vermilion Energy story, on behalf of the Government of Saskatchewan, reads much differently than the other four.

Over the past few years, Alberta and Saskatchewan Conservatives have been working closely with one another to achieve like-minded goals. The Alberta UCP was granted intervenor status in Saskatchewan’s challenge of the carbon tax. The Saskatchewan government is seeking intervenor status when the Alberta government challenges the same.

The Premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan joined with four other provincial and territory Premiers in signing a letter to the Prime Minister declaring bills C-48 and C-69 a threat to “national unity”. The Premier of Alberta chose a former Saskatchewan Finance Minister (NDP) as the chair of his Blue Ribbon Panel. Former Premier Brad Wall took a job at a Calgary law firm and takes time to speak at UCP events, and also helped set up a local Political Action Committee called the Buffalo Group. Just to name a few. 

The Post Media story that extols the virtues of Saskatchewan’s investment climate for Alberta oil and gas businesses may just be an advertisement but Vermilion Energy CEO Anthony Marino has mentioned the need for Alberta to streamline its regulatory process for “big projects” before. 

During a Bloomberg interview after the 2019 Alberta Election, Marino was asked what he would like to see from Jason Kenney. 

You know, we’d like to see consistent support for the industry, akin to what we’ve had for the past 10 or 15 years in Saskatchewan: consistent fiscal regime, sensible regulation, support for pipelines.

Vermilion Energy has projects in Alberta, Saskatchewan, the U.S. and overseas. Their Canadian head office is located in Calgary. According to their website, they currently have three “significant” potential developments in Alberta as well as smaller developments since 2010. 

Ethical considerations aside, if the advertising section of Content Works continues producing politically-sensitive content, it is unquestionably providing a “grassroots communication” according to the Alberta Lobbyists Act (2007).

Section 1(e): “grassroots communication” means appeals to members of
the public through the mass media or by direct communication that seek to persuade members of the public to communicate directly with a public office holder in an attempt to place pressure on the public office holder to endorse a particular opinion…

The idea that the Saskatchewan government might be trying to persuade Alberta oil and gas companies to invest across the border isn’t outlandish; Brad Wall tried to do the same when he was Premier. Certainly no one would accuse the Saskatchewan Government of lobbying the Alberta Government to make its legislation more business friendly; that would be strange, indeed. 

But what of the Alberta company who plays a major part in the story? Vermilion’s President and CEO is on record saying he hopes Alberta would provide similar benefits to his industry as Saskatchewan. It could even be said Vermilion had intention to lobby. Even if Vermilion did not pay for the advertisement, Content Works was paid to produce the ad. 

If Postmedia, for a fee, produces content that is, by request, political in nature, should the organization not also have to register as a lobbyist on behalf of those (paying) clients? 

Registration of lobbying activities are not required in Alberta until  50 hours have been completed toward the lobbying activity and let’s all admit that this is a new situation in a new era of capitalist ventures.

With that being said, if a company is going to create politically-themed content at the request of a payor, it should not be considered, or shielded by, freedom of the press. 

This post contains fact and opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean

contact: dmaclean@countersign.ca

Twitter: @mitchell_ab for all the commentary; @thisweekinab for posts. 

 

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