Documents obtained by Greenpeace and shared with CBC News show the energy company is using the U.S. public relations firm Edelman, the largest in the world, to promote the massive oil pipeline project.
Edelman bluntly told the pipeline company it has to change its tactics and that trotting out company executives with briefcases is no way to win supporters for Energy East.
"Our experience shows that using subject matter experts, employees or third party advocates is often much more effective in establishing connection with the public," it said.
Edelman suggested a "campaign-style approach" and borrowing tactics from opposing environmental groups that "press their advantage" and successfully use online campaigns to leverage "large and passionate audiences that show a propensity to vote and take other political action."
Two-thirds of the TransCanada pipeline is already in the ground carrying natural gas from Alberta to Ontario. The Energy East plan would convert it to carry oilsands bitumen and then build a new section of pipeline into Quebec and New Brunswick. There is growing environmental opposition in Ontario and Quebec to the plan.
In strategy documents prepared for TransCanada, Edelman warns it will need to counter "permanent, persuasive, nimble and well-funded opposition groups."
Edelman says the company needs "a perpetual campaign to protect and enhance the value of the Energy East pipeline."
It suggests a three-pronged approach — promote the pipeline, respond aggressively to any criticism and apply pressure on opponents using "supportive third parties who can put pressure on, especially when TransCanada can't."
It's the last tactic that bothers Keith Stewart from Greenpeace, who originally obtained the documents. He said Edelman is proposing to discredit opponents to Energy East by using sympathetic allies who are being fed information by TransCanada.
"When they actually try to do it in a sneaky manner, having attacks on their critics being co-ordinated by TransCanada but not putting their name on it, that's where I have a real problem," said Stewart in an interview with CBC.
In fact, the documents outline that very strategy. Edelman suggests conducting background checks on TransCanada's environmental opponents, starting with the Council of Canadians, Equiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, online activist group Avaaz and Ecology Ottawa.
The documents suggest plans to provide that and other information to a list of sympathetic third parties like pro-energy groups, think-tanks, academics, former government officials and pundits who can write op-ed stories and blogs to create "an echo chamber of aligned voices."
"We can adapt our strategy to anticipate opposition activity, extend TransCanada's sphere of influence and advocacy base and generate opinion media by third parties in support of Energy East," according to one of the documents entitled Energy East Campaign Organization.
Stewart called it "dirty tricks."
"When they are engaged in these kind deceptive practices ... trying to attack their opponents without putting their name to it ... it is unethical for them to be doing that," he said.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard confirmed in an email his company is working with the PR firm.
"We have not implemented all of the recommendations in the document," said Howard. "We are focused on the pieces that support a co-ordinated and organized communications program to ensure communities, landowners, First Nations and all Canadians have the facts to make an informed decision about Energy East."
"Part of that includes ensuring that we understand what organized opponents are saying about our project," he added.
Another major component is an online campaign to get people interested in the Energy East project and then recruit them to become committed supporters.
It starts with getting people to simply click on an Energy East project website to request more information about the project. From there, Edelman says it can turn the "average citizen into issue activists."
"Using targeted messaging and behaviour tracking to directly appeal to the individual's trigger points and develop them from a supporter to an activist to a champion," said one of the documents entitled Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document.
It says advocacy can develop from people simply signing a petition and develop into testifying at public meetings or lending their personal stories for ads and promotions.
"They provide us with a rich base of advocates who passionately understand and support our cause and are willing — more often than not — to do what's asked of them."
The goal is to recruit 35,000 advocates in 2014.
Greenpeace's Stewart says TransCanada is actually copying the grassroots approach used by environmental organizations, with one big difference.
"The challenge they face is they are not a grassroots organization, they are a major multinational corporation, so they have real trouble trying to mobilize people based on their values .… so this why they have to bring in a public relations firm to try and do this for them."
Howard said TransCanada has already launched its "action.energyeastpipeline.com" website and considers it a growing success.
"In two short weeks, 2,500 people have joined our advocacy campaign to add their voice to the dialogue, and nearly 100 have shared their personal stories. In the last month more than 50 supporters have voluntarily given on-camera testimonials," he said.
Questions around Quebec
Although the advocacy campaign is showing signs of promise, both the pipeline company and its PR firm know it could all come to a halt in Quebec.
The documents show they're worried that people in Quebec are more used to hydro power and consider Alberta and its oilsands to be the main reason why Canada has not met its Kyoto target. And there is considerable public concern over the effect of increased oil tanker traffic on the beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence River.
For the project to succeed, 1,400 kilometres of new pipe will have to be laid from west of Montreal to Saint John.
Howard said that's one of the reasons why the global PR company was hired in the first place.
"Edelman was chosen because of their presence in Quebec and their ability to understand the culture," he said.