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OTTAWA – Enbridge Inc. made a mounting public relations disaster worse this week by not immediately accepting blame in its official statement issued after an outspoken U.S. regulator compared one of Canada’s energy giants to the “Keystone Kops” due to Enbridge’s bungled response to a massive pipeline spill in Michigan, experts say.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Debbie Hersman’s scathing assessment of Enbridge’s 2010 spill response has also raised questions over whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to distance his government from Enbridge’s proposed $5.5-billion oil sands pipeline megaproject from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
Enbridge’s Pat Daniel, voted the 2011 Canadian chief executive of the year by the consulting firm Caldwell Partners, said in his initial formal response that company personnel “were trying to do the right thing” but encountered “a series of unfortunate events and circumstances [that] resulted in an outcome no one wanted.”
There was no apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing in the release, though a company official said Mr. Daniel – who was not made available for an interview with Postmedia News – apologized when speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., after the NTSB event.
Two consultants who help companies that suffer so-called “brand crises” said Enbridge made a tactical error in its official statement.
“There’s no sense they take any responsibility,” said Daniel Tisch, president of Toronto based Argyle Communications. “It’s as if it was all bad luck or an act of God – with no protagonist to take responsibility. Sure, the causes may be complicated, but do they accept even a share of the blame?”
Ottawa-based public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin said he was surprised the company didn’t apologize and make clear in the statement it recognized serious mistakes had been made.
Calling the spill of 843,444 gallons of diluted bitumen crude in a Michigan river “a series of unfortunate events” – a presumably unintentional use of the title of the Lemony Snicket’s harrowing children’s tale of arson, murder and mayhem – fails to “take ownership” of the spill.
“Being seen to take ownership in the face of such a damaging NTSB report is critical to Enbridge’s recovery in the eyes of the public,” Mr. McLoughlin said.
Both experts said Enbridge is capable of rebounding and repairing its brand by taking dramatic steps, though both were skeptical of the company’s current advertising campaign promoting the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to B.C.
“The prospects for the pipeline are likely dim without a significant boost in public and stakeholder confidence,” Mr. Tisch said.
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