Last week, Neil Young and his Honour the Treaties Tour was criticized for dividing Canadians over the Alberta oilsands expansion.
The head of the petroleum industry association, David Collyer, who was virtually unknown before this, said Young was being disruptive, but then Collyer methodically used every media outlet for days on end to very clearly tell Canadians how and why his industry is doing right by Canadians and Alberta First Nations.
All the experts who weighed in with their points of view should in fact be thanking Young. They would never have received ink or airtime for their ideas or their organizations otherwise. He gave them a chance to advance themselves on a national and international stage -- which ironically is not divisive but democratic.
In fact, Young did exactly what he promised at the beginning of the tour.
He raised awareness about the treaties and oilsands and used his high profile to make more of us pay attention -- for a few days. (At last count he also raised $500,000 for the Athabasca Chipewyan band's multimillion-dollar legal battle to protect its traditional land north of Fort McMurray, Alta.)
The real challenge now is whether the Honour the Treaties Tour amounts to more than a one-note song. Young has the opportunity to further use his personality, his passion and his vast experience to create an entire song book for a nation.
After all, for generations he's been writing war protest songs, lobbying for farmers' rights through Farm Aid, defending the environment, advancing alternative fuels and fundraising for schools for children with disabilities. Clearly he cares, clearly he has experience, but it appears there was no communications plan past four concerts and a few press conferences. That's a shame.
In today's 24-7 communications world, this is looking like we've been invited to a concert, but the artist only performs one song. Then he yields the stage for groups we've never heard of and music even he doesn't like.
Young and those who have a passion for their own issues are more likely to succeed if they follow a few basic tenets of good communications:
1. Commit. Plan and budget to be on the stage for the long run. Prepare deep communication plans that go beyond four press conferences. Otherwise, you risk that a better-organized opposition will take centre stage and damage both your good name and the campaign -- as we saw the oil industry do quite handily.
2. Study. A strong position starts with doing your homework and studying like you're getting ready for a big exam. Know everything you can about your opponent's industry.
3. Examine. Review your own actions in light of your position; honestly look at where you're vulnerable and talk about those things early to get them out of the way. Calgary media ran stories of Young's tour buses left idling for hours outside the concert venue. Had the buses had big signs on them that said "operated on alternative fuel" it might have been one less distraction from the real issue.
4. Focus. Focus on two or three key ideas and stick to them. (It's like a good song -- you need a good chorus you repeat and repeat.) Sadly, I couldn't tell if Young wanted us to be worried about the environment, First Nations rights, cancer rates, oil sales to China or pollution in Beijing. While Young's Facebook says, "Honour the Treaties is not an anti-tarsands crusade as the Calgary Herald claims. Its purpose is to bring light to the fact that treaties with First Nations peoples are not being honoured by Canada."
That key message didn't get past the Facebook posting. Conversely, the oil industry spent a considerable amount of time honing its messages and you heard Collyer state over and over, "I would suggest that Neil Young has a democratic right to be wrong, and we believe he does have it wrong." And then he dissected every "wrong."
5. Practise. Like getting ready for a concert, you have to practise what you're going to say over and over again before you stand in front of the hot lights. Don't wing it or you end up saying something silly.
6. Speaking of silly -- Use the right analogies. Analogies help us all understand instantly something that is complex. But they have to be the right ones. Young's comparison of Fort McMurray and area to Hiroshima got everyone distracted for too long and didn't help the discussion. To be convincing, the language needs to be credible.
7. Solicit. Call like-minded friends and colleagues to add weight, reputation and experience to the argument. Have them at the ready to weigh in swiftly online and in mainstream media.
The oil industry had an Alberta university professor weigh in instantly and repeatedly day after day. On Young's side, 20 notable Canadians signed one letter in support of Young that got one day's coverage.
In fact, each of those folks should have penned his or her own letter, creating more news hits over several days.
8. Use Mainstream. While social media is a good way to reach a few people (Young's Facebook page has 138,000 followers) you can reach millions with a story on the evening news.
9. Follow. Stay on top of the news and follow everything the opposition is saying and be prepared to respond immediately. The oil industry did.
So in the end, Young didn't divide us, as opponents suggest. But he didn't help focus the issue either, and time will tell if he and his team can help sustain it on behalf of his First Nations friends who are counting on him.
The issue deserves to be more than a one-week event or a four-concert show.
When the livelihood of oil workers, the health of First Nations children, the air we all breathe and the water we drink is at stake, then personalities need to consider whether they are in this for the long haul -- because the oil industry and the First Nations communities living around the oilsands certainly are.
Shirley Muir is president of the PRHouse.