Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

How Does McMurray React to Celebrity Visitors?

Sometimes the best place to be to observe your hometown is thousands of miles away. Being in another place can just provide a new perspective, and this past week I was far, far away as I watched the reaction as yet another in a long and growing string of celebrities came to town.

The news that Leonard DiCaprio was in Fort McMurray seemed to set the town on fire, with the main reactions running along certain themes. Social media reaction was particularly intense, with Twitter all a-twitter about the arrival of this hero of the big screen and speculation as to his reason for visiting. The main themes of reaction I identified were:

OMG, Leonardo DiCaprio is here!

Somehow in my head this written sentiment was always accompanied by small squeals of delight (and occasionally the distinct sound of heavy breathing). These were clearly the Leo fans, the ones who sent him tweets asking him to come to their ballgame/visit their house for dinner/hold their hand/attend their wedding/date their sister/etc, etc, etc. It made me wonder if this ever works and if these celebs just show  up the occasional bar mitzvah just for the amusement value. These reactions were similar to the "OMG, I cannot believe Leo is in town when I am out of town", which is one I understand as I will never forget the look I received from the Intrepid Junior Blogger when I casually mentioned DiCaprio was in Fort McMurray. It seems all the "out of town while he is visiting" folks hoped that if only they were in town they would get a chance to hold Leo's hand (although from early reports of his visits it seems spontaneous hand-holding was at a minimum).

Go the hell back to Hollywood, you hypocrite.

Ouch. While I get the feelings behind this particular reaction I think it is very poor strategy on our part to tell visitors of any kind to leave. That kind of hospitality isn't likely to leave a good impression on anyone, and if that is going to be how we greet visitors to our home I despair our lack of good manners. There was also a good deal of assumption behind this one, because while DiCaprio has shown some evidence that he may not provide a glowing report on the oil sands nothing indicated that he would be unfair or unjust, either.

Simply because one uses fossil fuels does not mean one cannot express concerns about the environment. Hell, I live here and I express these concerns as well, and about ensuring our industry strives for excellence in environmental practices and sustainability. One would hope that DiCaprio acknowledges the heavy reliance of the world, including the industry in which he achieved his fame, on oil and talks about lessening that reliance as opposed to rhetoric about shutting down the evil oil sands.

Legitimate concerns, legitimately expressed, should be welcomed in the dialogue as we share this planet - and I like to think we will also welcome visitors as regardless of their feelings on our industry every visitor is an opportunity for our community to shine.

Why care what DiCaprio thinks? Who gives a damn?

Well, here's the thing: there are people who do care what he thinks, like his millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter. They are reading and listening to what he says, and even if he is not an expert in the oil sands they may be giving some weight to his opinions. The internet has been the great leveller, meaning that all opinions regardless of genesis are often given equal weight, meaning that the opinion of a scientific expert may well be viewed with the same degree of legitimacy as that of an actor. Is this fair? Probably not, but as your momma may have said the world ain't fair, either. That's why industry must continue to improve in telling their story of innovation and excellence, because if they don't tell it they will be drowned out by those telling a different story - or just making one up.

People like DiCaprio, James Cameron, Robert Redford and Neil Young have what we call "reach". They have access to a far wider audience than most of us, and therefore the narrative they tell may well be the one that becomes associated with us in the minds of their followers. If you have never heard of Fort McMurray before and then one day at a farmer's rally someone like Young stands up and uses two words in a sentence - Fort McMurray and Hiroshima - the image you come away with of this place is less than stellar. And why does it matter what some person thousands of miles away thinks of us?

Because we are not an island unto ourselves. We are still trying to attract new residents to help us build this community, and if what you are hearing is that Fort McMurray is like Hiroshima then you may not answer that job ad looking for new physicians for Fort McMurray. Whether we like it or not what people think about our community has the potential to impact us, as does what these individuals with reach say about us. If we can help them, through our magnificent hospitality, friendliness and transparency, say: "I still have serious concerns about the oil sands industry, but man, the people of that region are terrific and I respect their community" then we will have accomplished a great deal (which is why reaction two has the potential to damage us, too).

I am so sick of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This reaction amused me. These visits are fleeting and the excitement they engender disappears quickly, but the impact can last a very long time, which is why we need to do our damnedest to make a good impression on these visitors before they leave - and I don't just mean celebrity visitors, either. I have invited total strangers to join me for coffee on learning they are from out of town, because every single one is a chance to change and direct the narrative about our community, if not our industry.

Welcome to Fort McMurray.

I was truly and genuinely pleased to see this reaction expressed so clearly and often. There were several variants - welcome and be kind to us please, welcome and spend some time getting to know us, welcome and please come hold my hand - but each one embodied the sort of grace and dignity one would hope from a region that has nothing to hide, nothing of which to be ashamed, and such tremendous spirit and energy to share. It shows an openness, a willingness to treat each new visitor as an individual, a respect for them and their desire to visit us to learn more. Yes, we might still get burned, but every chance you don't take is a chance you have lost. I have now done dozens of interviews about Fort McMurray, and on some I have been burned when the end product vilified us - but I will never regret doing a single one or outright reject doing another, because each one is a chance, even if just the slimmest chance, to write our own narrative of life here, and I believe in taking every chance life gives you. I know in the back of our heads we are often hearing The Who's classic "Won't Get Fooled Again", but we manage to closet our cynicism and instead put our best foot forward as we welcome yet another visitor to our region. I think that alone says a great, great deal about the incredible nature of this community and the people who call it home.

It was intriguing to watch the entire thing go down from afar, although the IJB felt far less positive about it. When I informed her Leo had left town - while we were still in Florida - she looked at me and growled, "Nice timing for a holiday, Mom" and scowled.

Sigh. I guess she thought she was gonna hold his hand while he toured the oil sands, too.

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