Liberal-friendly marketing firms busy as provincial election nears

A trio of Liberal-friendly marketing and communications firms have been busy in the year leading up to the next New Brunswick election.

Companies have been billing taxpayers for services like provincial heritage videos and communications advice

David Hawkins, co-founder of Brainworks Razor has billed the province $171,000 so far this year to help the Liberals deal with two of its biggest controversies - Medavie extramural contract and fixes to the troubled property assessment system. (David Hawkins/LinkedIn)

A trio of Liberal-friendly marketing and communications firms have been busy in the year leading up to the next New Brunswick election.

The companies have been billing taxpayers for services ranging from provincial heritage videos to communications advice on two of the biggest controversies faced by the Gallant Liberals in the last year.

Brainworks Razor, a company co-founded by McKenna-era marketing guru David Hawkins, has billed the province $171,000 so far this year, including to promote the contentious Medavie extramural contract and fixes to troubled property assessment system.

That's up from the $32,349 paid to Brainworks in 2016-17, the year it took over Razor Creative.

Meanwhile, Revolution Strategy has billed almost $370,000 so far this year for provincial government awareness campaigns and videos, according to figures released by the province.

Revolution billed $705,000 in 2016-17, the third year of a steady increase in billings since the Liberals took power in 2014.

Derek Riedle, who is the co-founder of Revolution Strategy, has billed the government $370,000 this year. (Ben Silcox/CBC)
At the same time Revolution is working for the government, co-founder Derek Riedle, a former Liberal election campaign advisor, is getting money from Opportunities New Brunswick to host an international conference on cannabis in Saint John in June.

ONB is spending $150,000 on the conference, which is promoted prominently on Riedle's cannabis-lifestyle website Civilized. The site describes New Brunswick as having "a unique and exciting position … at the forefront of the cannabis industry."

Gandalf Group, headed by David Herle, was paid $178,000 in 2015-16 and $62,640 in 2016-17 for polling and focus groups.
Meanwhile, taxpayers paid the Gandalf Group, headed by David Herle, a former advisor to Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, $178,000 in 2015-16 and $62,640 in 2016-17. The money was for polling and focus groups.

At the same time, the Liberal party was paying Gandalf smaller five-figure sums for "public opinion research and strategic advice," according to Marc Poirier, a party spokesperson. Herle is expected to advise Gallant's re-election campaign later this year.

Public wants information, minister says

Treasury Board minister Roger Melanson said the companies are helping the government respond to a craving for information from citizens.

"New Brunswickers constantly tell their government and their elected people that they want to be informed, they want to be educated, about what kinds of programs are offered to them," he said.

Treasury Board minister Roger Melanson says the companies are helping to keep New Brunswickers informed. (CBC News)
"So we've been very proactive in wanting to communicate to New Brunswickers about government programs that are available to them. At times we need help to be able to communicate that, and that's why we sometimes use outside help."

He said elected Liberal politicians have no role in the awarding of contracts.

"There's procurement legislation and rules in place that are being followed," he said. "We're not involved in that process."

But he added, "we don't shy away from" what he described as keeping people informed.

Cynthia Goodwin, Revolution's president, said it's company policy to not comment on the work it does for clients but "we are an approved vendor and are occasionally invited to bid on government work. We follow all government procedures when bidding."

She called Civilized a "sister company" to Revolution and said the event "has a number of private and public sponsors, of which ONB is one."

PCs question contracts

PC MLA Bruce Fitch says the companies have 'blatant ties' to the Liberal Party. (CBC)
Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Fitch questioned both the amounts and the choice of companies.

"The government has line items in every department for communications staff … [and] here you have outside companies that are getting substantial amounts of money," he said.

More importantly, Fitch said, are the firms' Liberal connections.

"If you didn't have such blatant ties with the Liberal party, you'd say, 'Oh well, it's not an issue.'"

The PC opposition has also questioned the Gallant Liberals' awarding of the government's main tourism contract to M5, another Atlantic Canadian marketing firm. M5 billed the province $4.8 million in 2016-17.

The Tories have pointed to the firm's Halifax partner, Chris McInnes, who advised the provincial Liberals ahead of the 2014 election campaign.

But M5 also has Tory ties, and when it acquired the assets of Bristol Communications in 2010, it took on some of that company's PC-connected staff.

Lottery suppliers

Revolution, Gandalf and M5 are also among six companies recently selected as a supplier of "strategic communications and public affairs consulting" for the Atlantic Lottery Corporation.

ALC is co-owned by the four Atlantic provincial governments, all currently Liberal. The corporation's director of public affairs, Courtney Pringle-Carver, is the nominated Liberal candidate for Moncton Northwest in this fall's election.

Molly Cormier, a spokesperson with ALC, said the selection process was a "renewal" of a preferred-supplier list, overseen by the corporation's procurement team. She said Revolution, Gandalf, and M5 were all on the previous list.

She said Pringle-Carver "was one of three individuals responsible for evaluating submissions" along with a procurement official "who oversaw the assessments and all aspects of the process."

Master services list

Tara Chislett, a spokesperson for the province, said Brainworks and Revolution have been on a "master services contract" list for more than a decade — a period that has spanned two Liberal governments and one Progressive Conservative administration.

Firms on the list are pre-qualified to provide services on contracts below $200,000. Any contract worth more than that must still go to tender.

Revolution Strategy helped the 2003 and 2006 Liberal election campaigns and won the tourism contract in 2009 when Shawn Graham was premier. (Radio-Canada)
Hawkins is one of the best-known marketing and communications consultants in Atlantic Canada. His previous company Hawk Communications had the lucrative tourism marketing contract during the Liberal government of Frank McKenna.

Riedle's Revolution Strategy partnered with another firm, DDB Canada, to win the tourism contract in 2009, when the Liberals were back in power under Premier Shawn Graham. Revolution had helped run the 2003 and 2006 Liberal election campaigns.

Contract not renewed

While Graham was in office, Revolution employed Graham's campaign manager and former Liberal cabinet minister Doug Tyler, whose job included lobbying Graham's government on behalf of clients.

Revolution's contract, worth $4.5 million, was for three years and was renewable for two additional years. In 2012, the PC government of David Alward opted not to renew it.

Figures released in the province's public accounts show Revolution's billings to the province dried up to nothing after 2012-13.

Hawkins sold Hawk Communications in 2001 but co-founded Brainworks in 2012. The company bought another Moncton marketing firm, Razor Creative, last year.

M5's work for the New Brunswick tourism department includes a video for Facebook promoting the new Family Day statutory holiday in February.

The video cost $9,861.25.

Hawkins and McInnes did not respond to requests for comments from CBC News. Herle referred the questions to the government and the Liberal party.

"We never discuss our client relationships with the media," he said in an email.

Corrections

  • This story has been corrected to remove an incorrect reference to another Family Day video produced by the New Brunswick government.
    Mar 23, 2018 11:20 AM AT

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.