From landfills to power stations, or subdivisions to gas stations, proponents have to deal with the community and regulators when a new project is on the table. But northern Ontario businessman Gordon McGuinty says many businesses underestimate the potency of politics and media in the project development process, especially when the environment is at risk.
McGuinty (second cousin to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whom he made a point of saying he’s never voted for) learned this lesson the hard way. As social media and instant news continue to grow, McGuinty warned companies at the November 8, 2012 International Sites and Spills Expo in Toronto, to be more vigilant than ever. He says he wants to help other project developers be fully-prepped for battle and learn from the errors of his ways during the controversial Adams Mine landfill project of the early nineties. It was a time McGuinty said he wasn’t “aggressive enough” in his defence of the project when criticism — especially environmental criticism — started to build around the idea of sending Toronto’s garbage north to a defunct iron mine.
As the author of TRASHED, which examines how business collides with politics, the environment and media, the 66-year-old addresses the Expo under the keynote presentation “Lead, Don't Follow — The New Realities”. He warns that the Internet age allows for instantaneous, worldwide scrutiny by many influential environmental groups. The increasing presence of cellphones with photo and video capability creates even greater challenges when so many people are able to document corporate environmental incidents like oil spills and the ensuing response, he says.
“That news is out and developing in the marketplace and the community’s psyche before the company’s even had a chance to react. That’s what we’re up against today," McGuinty says.
McGuinty believes that there’s no such thing as a fair fight for project proponents. He refers to a University of Texas study about how the media — newspapers, TV, radio and online news — approached coverage of oil projects. The study evaluated if media coverage was “positive, negative or neutral”. The university found 75 per cent of the media coverage to be “negative”.
“We tend to think we’ll be treated fairly when we deal with the media. That’s not true,” McGuinty said. “The media reports what’s said. They do not report if it’s true. Think about that, ‘cause that’s the reality.”
McGuinty’s slideshow presentation quoted a writer at The Globe and Mail who once said “the irresponsibility of the media is the responsibility of the proponent”.
Typically, business developers get about 16 seconds to get their point across to the media, McGuinty said. Besides that disadvantage, he says people who oppose development projects are often able to lie and manipulate without consequence when talking to the media. But proponents can’t lie, he says, because they’ll get called out for it and be held accountable.
Eco-activist groups are a top-rung concern, McGuinty says, primarily because they target politicians who “would like to sit on the sidelines if there’s a controversy."
“The reality is they use one thing. They use fear,” McGuinty warns the crowd.
Words like “climate devastation” are commonplace, McGuinty says. He explained how he keeps an ongoing list of 15 words that tend to be rather vague or meaningless descriptors coming from environmentalist groups. He calls it the “Suzuki Factor” (in reference to Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki) when a large eco-organization chooses a specific project to rally against, as happened in the case of his Adam Mine landfill project.
In McGuinty’s own case, he found the Adam Mine project up against a strong political opponent in the late NDP Leader Jack Layton. McGuinty calls Layton “one of the more astute managers of media I’ve ever seen.”
Opponents of the project south of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, often cited the quarry pit's unstable rock walls and the potential for contaminants to leach into the local groundwater supply.
Layton came down hard on the Adams Mine project. The project lost support at Toronto’s city council and eventually the city’s garbage ended up being shipped to the U.S.
Layton was criticized in some circles for his portrayal of certain dollar figures surrounding the project.
“…He had an agenda. And a lot of it was a personal agenda,” McGuinty says.
So what is McGuinty’s solution to the Internet age putting a brighter spotlight on corporations who may choose profits before environmental footprints? Have a plan; know what the media and politicians are saying; don’t quit.
“Any one of you can write a story. That’s what we’re up against in your industry or company,” he said. “You gotta keep selling. You gotta keep going even after the project’s rolled out.”
Winding down his talk, McGuinty spoke about the importance of influential figures in small communities when it comes to major development projects. He says many communities have people with longstanding, solid reputations whose opinions affect many people in the community who respect and look up to them.
“Take the initiative and go and talk to these people. It will pay huge dividends.”