Worth 1,000 words: PR battle subject of new book

June 28, 2017
Geo Takach

Call them tar sands, call them oil sands. Images of Canada’s famous bituminous sands are at the centre of a public relations clash and the subject of a new book by Dr. Geo Takach.

 An associate professor in the School of Communication and Culture, Takach says the tension between the environment and the economy in Alberta is a canary in a coal mine. “It provides a fabulous case study of how Canada is handling a completely polarized debate,” he says.

In his latest book, Tar Wars (University of Alberta Press), Takach focuses on the public relations battle between independent documentary filmmakers producing work critical of Canada’s environmental stewardship and the communicators employed by the oil industry to defend it. Like his book, Scripting the Environment, published last year, the research in Tar Sands builds on his PhD thesis.

For the author, Tar Wars was an opportunity to understand how communicators and image-makers frame the way we see and talk about the tar sands. And more broadly, how conversations and visuals shape the way we perceive and treat the environment. 

”It’s a politically loaded discourse that’s tightly controlled,” says Takach. “Looking at the communications reveals a lot about how our society is run, who runs it and where our priorities lie.”

As an example, he points out that oil-industry supporters (and the popular-media publications they sponsor) want to call the resource oil sands—not the more longstanding term tar sands—because it sounds cleaner. In his book, he coins a neutral term, “bit-sands.”

As a filmmaker, Takach is drawn to the way in which visuals frame each side of the tar sands battle and was motivated to study how it reflects flows of power that we don’t see. In Tar Wars, heshows how environmentalists have used film to focus on destruction and disease, and how communicators hired by the oil industry have used public relations video campaigns to hype the benefits of an oil-rich economy and the professionals whose work supports oil extraction.

“Oil communicators are focusing on the good, hardworking people in their advocacy campaigns, trying to make it a story about people instead of the environment when it’s both,” says Takach.

In his research for the book, Takach analyzed the video messages and framing produced by both sides and interviewed their actual creators. “I wanted to get into the heads and hearts of the people involved,” he says. “What I gained, and what readers may take away, is a greater appreciation for the forces, flows of power and nuances underlying our struggles around economy and environment.”

Takach compares the two sides to a David-and-Goliath scenario: the independent documentary filmmakers who don’t make a lot of money or have huge audiences, but are trying to show the world what’s going on, versus savvy communication professionals responding with clever advocacy campaigns.

“To look at their discussion shows me a lot about power, their priorities and just how we communicate about the environment and what the consequences of that might be,” he says.

He hopes his book will help people learn more about the conversation going on around images and environment in Canada, and that readers will come away inspired to think, talk and act on the bigger issues of survival on earth.

“The status quo has to give,” he says. “My role is sharing ideas and research. Let’s hear more voices on the issues and make a knowing difference.”