Enbridge's uphill PR battle: Laptops, cupcakes and research centres

Enbridge's relationship with the University of Calgary is under the microscope this week. But that sponsorship is a small part of an overall strategy of targeted investments in Canadian communities.

Enbridge spends $15 million a year on community investment in order to bring Canadians onside

Enbridge is trying to even out anti-pipeline sentiment with community investment, including donations to universities. (CBC)

On Monday, as news broke about Enbridge's troubled relationship with academics at the University of Calgary, the pipeline company was in the media for another educational donation.

​The Sarnia Observer reported that Enbridge had donated 15 refurbished laptops to three elementary schools in the city. Teachers were happy and beaming kids were pictured in the newspaper in front of the laptops. This may seem very distant from the $2.25 million pledged to the University of Calgary for a research centre, but it is all part of the same public relations strategy.

You know that there are people sitting around a table saying — all we want is positive sentiment about our brand, how do we get this?- Scott Stratten, UnMarketing

And if you're tempted to ask whether donating used laptops to kids is part of a PR strategy? Well, it did end up in the newspaper.

It's almost impossible to overstate how boring the pipeline industry used to be and how uncontroversial. Enbridge is probably still adjusting to its role as a national punching bag and is using something that it has a lot of — money — to try to bring Canadians onside. The question becomes — is it working?

Enbridge's community investment fund

A protest in Hamilton after Enbridge donates $44,000 to the local OPP detachment.

Let's start by stating the obvious: corporations rarely spend money on a whim. Any donation or sponsorship decision is made carefully, a business case crafted, benefits calculated. Enbridge spends $15 million a year on community investment, with money targeted to communities along its pipeline routes, or in parts of the country where it operates as energy distributor.

Multiple fire, police and other first responder services in central Canada have received donations over the past few years, many along the route of Enbridge's Line 9b pipeline. An art gallery in Regina recently got $250,000 to bring art to aboriginal youth in inner-city schools.

But, where Enbridge's money goes, controversy often follows. A $44,000 donation to the Hamilton police resulted in a local protest, the BC Cancer Foundation dropped Enbridge as a naming sponsor of its Ride to Conquer Cancer, a college in Terrace, B.C. declined to administer student bursaries on offer from the company.

"You know that there are people sitting around a table saying 'all we want is positive sentiment about our brand. How do we get this?'" said Scott Stratten, a branding expert with UnMarketing. ​
Enbridge launched the Life takes Energy campaign to remind Canadians that pipelines are an important part of everyday life. (Enbridge)

Road trips and cupcakes

Part of that strategy was to launch the Life Takes Energy campaign a little over a year ago. The sense at Enbridge, as it is in much of the oilpatch, is that Canadians take energy for granted. The campaign reminded us that cupcakes, for example, cannot be baked without energy. School buses can't get kids to school and road trips can't be taken.

This is soft marketing, presumably designed to sway the majority of Canadians who don't have strong feelings, either positive or negative about pipelines. There is probably no changing the hearts and minds of those who protest a donation to the Hamilton police, but there are many Canadians who do not oppose pipelines, but typically only hear the name Enbridge in the context of a protest.

It did not take long though before Life Takes Energy got caught in activist crosshairs. Last spring, Tim Hortons began airing Life Takes Energy ads in its restaurants. That campaign lasted about three weeks before an online petition from a group called SumOfUs urged Tim Hortons to yank the ads, accusing the company of "shilling" for the oilsands shipper.

Tims soon ended its relationship with Enbridge, although Air Canada continues to air its ads on in-flight television.

Academic sponsorship as public relations

​Corporate sponsorship of colleges and universities is perhaps an even softer form of marketing. Well established in Canada, it usually follows one of three paths. The first is to donate money and have a faculty named after you, the second is to sponsor a research chair, staffed by a distinguished professor on a particular research track.

The third is for specific projects, which is an attractive option, but traditionally, there has been a Chinese wall between the academics and the sponsor.

"We'll give them the money," said Alan Middleton, a marketing expert at the Schulich School of Business. "But it's up to them what to do. What we'll get from it is the association with a learning institution, the knowledge of some of the smart people going though it, being seen as a really good employer for smart people."

Middleton acknowledges that there has been a push in recent years for more control over the money donated to universities.

In 2012, Middleton's own employer, York University was negotiating with a private think-tank started by Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie to create a school for international law. It fell apart over questions about academic freedom.

"While you might work well with the professional schools and the science schools by giving them money, universities also have very large liberal arts areas and frankly their faculties don't tend to be hugely in favour of commercial enterprises setting foot in universities," he said.

That seems to be the very trap that Enbridge fell into, along with the University of Calgary.


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