(This essay by Jak King was posted on his blog on July 30, 2015. Republished here, with his permission. Neighbourhood groups would do well to note his comment about the “immoral asymmetry of power and money.” And be aware of the stealthy role of certain PR firms in major developments around you.)
Who Needs Public Relations in Planning?
There is in Vancouver a breed of the public relations business that seeks to manipulate public opinion and manufacture consent specifically for rezoning hearings and other major development projects.
Developers who take the time to both understand and appreciate the zeitgeist of a neighbourhood have no need of such services. Their empathy with the community wouldn’t allow them to bring forward projects that are so obviously wrong, so clearly inappropriate.
But the developers who are driven by profit or are used to getting their own way, and who choose to ignore the loudly voiced outrage of longtime (and even new) residents, apparently do need such public relations specialists. And it seems likely that Boffo, in the case of the tower on the Drive, have understood this for quite some time.
I have a memory that Pottinger Bird, one of the most preeminent of these PR companies, were involved in some way in the only open house that Boffo have yet put their name to; and that was years ago. I know that Boffo and the Kettle also used Brook Pooni & Associates, another PR company at that time.
Virginia Bird, principal of Pottinger Bird, was working the room at the Open House at Wise Hall this May. Most of the attendees thought this was going to be a Boffo event, but the City of Vancouver had their names all over it. It would be interesting to know what role Ms. Bird and her company played in that particular shambles, and whether they will or have had sight of the feedback from that meeting before we the public have the chance to see it for ourselves.
Pottinger Bird and its operatives have been suspected by some to have links to phony “community groups” and websites that throw support behind a development, to the coaching of “independent” residents who then speak in favour of a disputed project, and to tracking of opposition groups and individuals. They have certainly been active in the West End and in Mount Pleasant, often without identifying themselves as paid lobbyists; and their reputation goes before them.
As I mentioned near the beginning, developers who are genuinely in touch with their neighbourhood don’t have to spend the large sums of money that one can assume these people attract. And you have to wonder why, in this case, Boffo believes it is necessary to spend that money to have a professional company sneaking around when the opposition to their project, the No Tower Coalition, is open and transparent about its aims and its plans, shows up at Grandview Park nearly every day to talk with residents, and maintains an open website.
I have written before about the immoral asymmetry of power and money faced by those opposing the City and developers. Hiring PR consultants to secretly manipulate public opinion is just one more stick they use to try to beat us into submission against our much better judgement. But if we stand firm, we can speak to power, we can turn around this City and get the people back in charge.
(Neighbourhood groups would be good to get to know these folks. They may turn up at the next major rezoning open house! A case could be made that PR firms in the development industry actually function as lobbyists in some cases — as they are attempting to influence the vote of an elected official on a matter of legislation. So, perhaps this breed of firms should be included in citizens’ demands for the creation of a municipal lobbyist registry):