Mr. Green Spin

“Whether preparing for a job search or a media interview, you should always begin by preparing key messages. Set your agenda and stick to it. It’s the best hope for leaving the right impression.”

— P.R. Tips by Jim Hoggan, Vancouver Sun, April 28, 2007

It’s a slight distinction, but Jim Hoggan comes off as being well-prepared but not calculating. He’s also casual, direct, and articulate. In short, he’s a far cry from the stereotypical PR flack popularized on The Daily Show—the dissembling, conscientiously obtuse Bush administration press secretary who responds to tough questions with calibrated buzz phrases like “support our troops” and “stay the course.” Then again, maybe not looking slick is just a better way of being slick.

Jim Hoggan’s the suit with the heart of green. As one of the city’s top PR guys, he charges $350 an hour to help clients like A&W, Century 21, and Canadian Tire look good. His weekly advice on PR issues in the business pages of the Vancouver Sun recently ended a four-and-a-half-year run and will be published, with extra material, as a book next spring. And he’s jumped into the middle of the angry public debate on climate change, pitting himself against his counterparts in the fossil-fuel industries.

Hoggan, a fit-looking 61-year-old with blue eyes and side-swept, reddish hair, calls his work with the climate-change Web site DeSmogBlog and his chairing the volunteer board of the David Suzuki Foundation “God’s work.” Since it launched in December 2005, DeSmogBlog has become part virtual gathering spot, part dead-tree reporter’s information resource, and part soapbox—tricked out with Web 2.0 accoutrements like a YouTube channel, RSS feeds, a Facebook group, and podcasts—for the environmental movement. Hoggan says the site had 850,000 unique visitors last year. In February, the Times of London’s Web site included it on a list of the “Top 50 Eco Blogs.”

Hoggan’s work is fuelled by a zealot’s conviction that immediate change is needed to avoid catastrophe. DeSmogBlog is on a self-appointed mission to provide a database and gathering place for those fighting the climate-change “denial” movement. The Web site labels as deniers those scientists who challenge the now-mainstream belief in manmade climate change (as opposed to a change that’s occurring naturally due to sunspots, as some skeptics insist) and calls for restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions.

According to Hoggan, scientists like University of Virginia professor emeritus Fred Singer, who also had a hand in the U.S. tobacco industry’s efforts to dispute the science on second-hand smoke, are instruments of the oil and coal conglomerates. Working with industry-backed scientific associations, right-wing think tanks, and sham “grass-roots” organizations (in a process Hoggan terms “astroturfing”), they create the illusion of contention and debate on climate change when in truth the real debate ended many years ago.

Hoggan sees these tactics as a perversion of public relations and bad for society. “A good PR person knows how to balance the clients’ interests with the public’s interests,” he says from the Howe Street offices of James Hoggan & Associates. “Public confusion caused by industry and front groups, particularly in the U.S., is serious stuff. What these folks are doing is not harmless.”

One of DeSmogBlog’s features is a database that scrutinizes the credentials of climate-change doubters. “People are trying to say we’re associating them with the Holocaust deniers,” says Hoggan. “It’s certainly not our intention. We went back and forth . We don’t like calling them skeptics, because skepticism is good.”

According to the database, Fred Singer “is affiliated with no less than 11 think tanks and associations that have received funding from ExxonMobil.” In the entry for Timothy F. Ball, DeSmogBlog takes issue with the retired University of Winnipeg professor’s former association with Friends of Science, a group whose president admitted to the Toronto Star that it received a third of its funding from the oil industry.

Such outspokenness has earned Hoggan enemies as well as friends. His appearance last November on a segment of the CBC program The Fifth Estate, called “The Denial Machine,” caught the attention of Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, who wrote a column titled “Who Is James Hoggan?” Corcoran’s answer? A “totally unqualified small-town PR guy making disparaging comments about scientists he says are unqualified while he lectures the rest of us on the science.”

This small-town PR guy points anyone who doubts his word in the direction of scientific organizations like NASA and the Royal Society in London, both of which have publicly accepted manmade climate change as fact. Hoggan, who casually recites environmental statistics and data from memory, also mentions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group established by the United Nations, which has concluded there’s a 90 percent chance that human activity is causing climate change.

Rather than downplay his business success, Hoggan refers to it often, as if to suggest that capitalism and environmentalism can coexist. “It doesn’t help environmentalists to be seen as radical,” he says. “It doesn’t help to be suggesting that we all move into cardboard boxes and wear hair shirts. It’s not going to happen.” By using alpha types like Hoggan, the Suzuki Foundation, whose board also includes chartered accountants and lawyers, is grafting the face of environmentalism onto the body of a businessman. And Hoggan is the PR doctor helping to perform the surgery.

“Spin has a short shelf-life; truth eventually wins out. And when it does, people become suspicious of everything you say. Remember that before resting your reputation on spin.”

P.R. Tips by Jim Hoggan, Vancouver Sun, December 16, 2006

As Hoggan explains it, if somebody with the qualifications he had when he started working in PR showed up at his office today, he or she would be shown the door. Born in a rough part of Calgary, the son of a teacher/social worker mother and a father who worked in construction, Hoggan did well in high-school sports and taught windsurfing and skiing in Whistler. He travelled in Europe before enrolling as a mature student at UBC in the late 1970s. A lifelong interest in Zen Buddhist meditation led him to organizing press conferences and handling media as a volunteer for the Students’ International Meditation Society. Later, he worked with Amnesty International.

In 1984, Hoggan enrolled in the law program at the University of Victoria, and not long afterward married Enid Marion, another law student. She already had a son from a previous marriage, and as Hoggan explains it, he started working in corporate PR to pay the bills. By that time, he’d dropped his hippie stylings and become, as he says, an “Italian-suit, dress-for-success” kind of guy. Early clients included Spence Diamonds and the biopharmaceutical company QLT.

Within six months, his little side business had taken off and he found himself helijetting back and forth between the Island and his clients in Vancouver. “Basically, I stopped going to class,” says Hoggan, who’d realized he didn’t want to practise law. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even open the textbook.” End-of-term cram sessions with Marion—who recently retired as a partner from Harris & Company, one of the city’s top labour law firms—helped get him through the degree.

Hoggan gained industry-wide acclaim for his work with Capers in March 2002. Hepatitis A had been diagnosed in a worker in Capers’ commissary, potentially exposing anyone who’d come into contact with items in the upscale market. Brought in to help manage this crisis, Hoggan coached the company through the turmoil, working with it to establish a Web site and 1-800 number, writing news releases and in-store bulletins, and formulating a radio and print campaign apologizing for the incident. His agency’s work on the file won him a prestigious 2003 Silver Anvil industry award.

The Capers work helped him clarify his professional philosophy, which he later explained in a speech he delivered at the Canadian Public Relations Society’s national conference in Edmonton. He told the assembled that he follows three rules:

Number one: Do the right thing.
Number two: Be seen to be doing the right thing.
And Number three: Don’t get 1 and 2 mixed up.

“The fact is, if someone’s on the wrong side of something, it’s difficult to help them,” he says. “In the long run, you get the reputation you deserve.” Hoggan had himself been on the “wrong side” of the environmental movement in 1990, when he worked with lumber magnate Herb Doman, who ran a pulp and paper mill that was targeted by Greenpeace for polluting Howe Sound. Hoggan describes the experience as a “pivot point. I remember walking away from that and thinking, ‘Those environmentalists were right. They were annoying, but they were right.’ ”

Hoggan admits to having occasionally practiced the manipulative PR work that he now denounces, but when pressed on his work with Doman he takes a pragmatic view. “This was a mill that employed 600 people, so it was a huge part of the Squamish-area economy,” he says. He adds that Doman’s company spent $70 million trying to reduce the chlorine pollution produced by the mill. “Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect. You couldn’t take the mill and make it zero bleaching from chlorine; you had to look at ways to reduce it.”

Today, his environmental concerns are reflected in his own life. Business travel is carbon-neutral, photocopiers at the office use both sides of a sheet of paper, energy-efficient technology is a requirement for new equipment. A change of clothes hangs from the door of his corner office for the times he cycles to work from his home in North Vancouver. Otherwise he drives a diesel-powered Smart Car to work (and has a Lexus SUV hybrid for trips outside the city).

What got him spreading the gospel on the Internet? DeSmogBlog came about when he began searching for a community-service aspect to his company’s Web site. While reading about American author Ross Gelbspan’s books on the climate-change debate and industry front groups in the States, Hoggan became enraged by the way public-relations people were manipulating—appearing to do good—rather than informing and actually moving the green agenda forward.

Salt Spring Island lawyer and Internet millionaire John LeFebvre, a friend of Hoggan’s since they were teenagers in Calgary, pitched in $300,000 to get the blog started. (Last July LeFebvre pled guilty in the U.S. to “conspiracy to promote illegal gambling,” charges that grew out of his involvement in Neteller, a company that facilitated the transfer of funds for online gaming. Hoggan declines to comment on the conviction other than to say he admires and supports LeFebvre.) Today, DeSmogBlog has one full-time employee, Kevin Grandia, a former policy aide to Liberal MP Raymond Chan, and a group of freelance writers that includes Gelbspan and former Sun columnist Richard Littlemore.

By most accounts, DeSmogBlog has put the climate-change doubters on the defensive. “Up until three or four years ago, we used to get calls every week asking us to debate some of these guys or asking us to respond to something they said,” says Morag Carter, director of the climate-change program at the Suzuki Foundation. “We then had to go into a convoluted discussion with people explaining that this is a skeptic who’s funded by Exxon. Not having to do that anymore is brilliant.” As this article is being written, Grandia says he’s working with six different reporters on climate-change-related stories.

Hoggan’s adversaries are predictably furious at the favourable attention he’s drawn and the traction his Web site has gained. “He’s a disgrace. He’s a liar. He takes money from a criminal,” says Timothy Ball on the phone from Victoria. “All the DeSmogBlog does is attack people—without credibility. His attacks on me are full of lies.”

Corcoran, in his attack on Hoggan, performs some rhetorical jujitsu, attributing to the PR pro the same kind of conflicts of interest that Hoggan associates with the denial industry. After dismissing the airing of Singer’s connections with Exxon as “standard anti-corporate fare,” Corcoran takes issue with Hoggan’s own client list: “They include or have included the National Hydrogen Association, Fuel Cells Canada, hydrogen producer QuestAir, Naikun Wind Energy, and Ballard Fuel Cells. Mr. Hoggan, in other words, benefits from regulatory policy based on climate-change science.” Hoggan, Corcoran concludes, is “the real villain.”

“Good leaders inspire hope, not panic. If you try to motivate your audience by fear or by threat, that audience will turn off. This applies in all business settings, but it’s especially applicable when urging action on the environment. Bleak future scenarios engender paralysis.”

— P.R. Tips by Jim Hoggan, Vancouver Sun, March 10, 2007

A couple weeks after our first interview, Hoggan and I meet near Kits Beach for a bike ride. Hoggan, who’s recovering from bronchitis, is decked out in cycling gear: a yellow fluorescent vest, those inescapable crotch-hugging shorts, and silver velcro-strapped cycling shoes. Riding out to UBC, Hoggan waits cautiously before crossing busy streets and waves to the friendly drivers who let us pass. As we ride we talk. Or, more precisely, Hoggan—who has taken his bike on trips to Italy, Holland, and England and says he can dismantle his high-end road vehicle in 15 minutes—talks while I huff, puff, and sweat pints heading up the hill from Spanish Banks.

On the subject of his critics, he’s initially equanimous. “I don’t think of him as hateful,” he says of Timothy Ball, “but I think what he’s doing is irresponsible.” He admits to a measure of ambivalence about DeSmogBlog’s work on the deniers and acknowledges that, early on, the site’s tone was perhaps harsh.

When it comes to Corcoran, though, the carefully guarded PR man slips—if only a little—and reveals an animus that’s grounded not so much in the righteous urgency of reversing climate change as in a sense of injury from some very public barbs. He heatedly describes the columnist as being “more ideology than journalism.” As for his own business connections with clean energy, Hoggan argues that clients like Naikun “don’t want a controversial PR person. People hire PR people to get out of the controversy.” Hoggan is aware of the ulterior motives—be they tied to profit or to ego—that some ascribe to his crusade. “The fact of the matter is, sometimes you have strong feelings about things,” he says. “This is something I think is important, it’s something I know about, and it’s something I can contribute to. People my age think about those kinds of things.”

Eventually, Hoggan and I circle UBC, enjoying the cedar-smelling air and the pristine beauty of Pacific Spirit Park and the Endowment Lands, before returning to Kits. We part ways on Burrard Street. As I make for home, Hoggan heads back to his office, where he’ll doff the cycling gear and climb back into his Italian suit.