Randall Lane, editor of Forbes magazine, on Alberta’s image problem
He says Alberta's business leaders need to do something transformative
by Michael Ganley
The editor of Forbes magazine, Randall Lane, came through Alberta early last week for a tour of the oil sands and to be featured as the keynote speaker at the Venture 250 luncheons in Edmonton and Calgary. He flew New York to Fort McMurray (via Toronto) on a Sunday morning, toured the Syncrude operation, had dinner at the golf club (the worst burger he’s ever eaten, I’m afraid) and spent the night at the Sawridge. He flew to Edmonton on Monday morning
Lane came through the province not long after another influential U.S. magazine, Esquire, published a story about the Keystone XL pipeline which described Fort McMurray – in the very first line of the story, no less – as “the little Canadian town that might just destroy the world.”
Lane gave that statement the abuse it deserves, but also used it to highlight the major image problem the oil sands, Fort McMurray and, by extension, Alberta faces on the world stage.
And he gave a possible solution.
His talk was about corporate social responsibility and how, when done properly, it can transform a company, an industry and a region, “both in perception and in reality.”
He says there are three kinds of CSR: risk management, in which a company works to ensure a pipeline doesn’t leak or a mine doesn’t pollute the groundwater; being a good corporate citizen, where the company tries to be more energy efficient and enviro-conscious and to not cultivate relationships with dictators; and corporate philanthropy, where the company gives to a local cause or buys a table at an event.
He focused on the third, and had some recent experience to relate. The current cover of Forbes features the second and third richest people in the world – Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – and the only African-American on the magazine’s 2011 list of billionaires, Oprah Winfrey. Forbes had brought those three and 158 more billionaires and near-billionaires together for a day in New York to talk about philanthropy. Buffett has famously pledged to give 99 per cent of his wealth to charity and is encouraging other billionaires to do the same. Gates has been influential in containing malaria in Africa and is now helping to eradicate polio. Many others in the crowd had done similarly substantial things.
Lane focused on the need for companies in Alberta to also do something transformative, something real that would be noticed beyond our borders. Donating to charity or sponsoring a sports club may make a company’s employees happy, but it certainly doesn’t burnish its image beyond the region.
He said the plan had to be driven by the industry’s leaders, not by the marketing or communications departments. He emphasized that in the era of social media, everyone’s watching and anything that sniffs of self-serving bunk will be rooted out and scorned. Indeed, a marketing program without the goods to back it up can backfire. BP’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico was made worse, Lane said, by the fact that the company had previously spent millions rebranding itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” “When it came out that they had a bad track record, it was all seen as a propaganda campaign, the ultimate example of greenwashing. The brand was hurt more by the company’s own marketing dollars.”
His example for Alberta? Guarantee a university or college education to every Albertan youth who graduates from high school with a minimum grade, so long as they agree to return to Alberta for a certain period of time after graduation. Albertan youth get an added incentive to finish high school and college paid for. Alberta’s image gets burnished on a grand scale and Albertan companies get some help with their labour shortages.
That wasn’t his prescription, just an example of the kind of big-picture thinking that he’s pushing for. The actual idea should come from Albertans.
We had good attendance at the two luncheons, a little over 200 people at each. There was an energetic vibe, particularly at the event in Calgary. Wouldn’t it be something to see the leaders of the Venture 250 companies step up and try to make something transformative happen?