Origin’s animal stance highlights clash of cultures

James Nason, 21/02/2013

Origin Energy says it will no longer sponsor events such as rodeos that are opposed by the RSPCA.For five years Origin Energy has been the major sponsor of a popular community festival in Roma, a town of 8000 people central to the company’s rapidly expanding Coal Seam Gas operations in Southern Queensland.

That was until one week ago when pressure from animal rights activists saw the CSG producer and domestic energy retailer suddenly withdraw support for the event, leaving organisers with a major budgetary hole to fill just six weeks out from this year’s festival.

The development is another sign of the increasing success animal rights groups are having in their efforts to influence the behaviour of corporate brands anxious to avoid negative attention in the urban markets they serve.

Origin Energy told Beef Central this week that it will no longer support events that involve animal activities which could contravene RPSCA animal treatment guidelines.

Roma's Easter in the Country program involves horse racing and rodeos, while the organising committee decided last month to discontinue the festival's long running goat racing event. 

The RSPCA strongly opposes rodeos, and, while its policy stops short of opposing horse-racing, Roma community leaders say Origin has made it clear that as long as horse-racing and rodeos are part of the Easter in the Country program, they will no longer be part of the event.

Clash of cultures

Origin Energy is unique among the major CSG companies operating in Southern Queensland in that it also has a major domestic gas and electricity retailing business serving 4.4 million customers, most of whom live in Sydney and Melbourne.

The two business streams have left Origin facing a clash of cultures when it comes to issues such as animal welfare.

The company has spent a small fortune trying to win the hearts and minds of residents and landholders in country areas where its coal seam gas operations are rapidly expanding.

While CSG has generated thousands of jobs and significant investments in regional economies, CSG companies have faced an uphill battle to win community support in the face of an ongoing campaign focusing on the potential negative impacts of gas extraction on the environment, agriculture and underground water.

The heavy investments made by Origin in local sponsorships, community programs and advertising offensives – such as the company’s recently launched campaign featuring Roma’s favourite son Darren Lockyer – highlight the importance it places on winning support and acceptance in the rural communities in which it operates.

On the other hand, corporate brands are also highly sensitive to how their brand is perceived in urban areas, particularly one such as Origin Energy which has millions of city based gas and electricity customers.

When attempts to win the hearts of minds of one group of stakeholders are seen to threaten a brand’s standing with another group, the question of where allegiances truly lie can be put to the test.

Animal rights pressure

Last week such pressure was brought to bear when members of Animal Liberation launched an online petition calling for Origin Energy and Qantas to cancel their sponsorship of the annual Easter in the Country festival in Roma because it included goat racing.

This was despite the fact that organisers had already made a decision to cancel the goat races weeks earlier, based on the excessive insurance costs and decreasing corporate support for the event.

However, when Origin and Qantas both released statements declaring they no longer supported the event, Animal Liberation still claimed victory, and commended the companies on their actions.

(For the record Qantas has since advised the organising committee that its only concern was the goat racing event, and given that event has been discontinued, its sponsorship for this year’s festival will continue as normal)

'Aligning with extremists'

Origin Energy’s stance has earned the company kudos from animal liberation members commenting on an online forum, but has prompted an angry response from community leaders in Roma.

Mayor Rob Loughnan has accused the company of turning its back on the rural communities that had supported it, and of siding with anti-farming extremists in order to appease its city customers.

“On one hand they condemn anti-CSG groups such as Lock the Gate as extremists, but now they are being extremist themselves, because they are listening to these people and taking the extreme of the argument against the communities that they are trying to fit into out here,” Cr Loughnan said.

“It doesn’t work.”

Cr Loughnan said Origin representatives had advised him they would not support the event as long as racing and rodeos were part of it, and added that they will work with the organising committee to grow the festival into an event that would “attract people from the animal rights movement from all over Australia”.

He said that as a powerful company Origin had played into the hands of extreme animal welfare groups, and questioned where it would end.

“With the RSPCA’s opposition to saleyard auctions for cattle, it is only a matter of time now that Origin is on this path that they are going to be called on to not do business with landholders that might sell their cattle through saleyards.

“If the people that are influencing them now decide to go that way, I believe they would.”

Cr Loughnan said it was disappointing that Origin had not used the opportunity this issue presented to play a two-way advocacy role.

“They could have been pushing for improvement at this end as they obviously have been, then applauding decisions such as cancelling the goat races, and playing a role in trying to teach those in the city that we don’t mistreat animals, and that most animals are looked after in every sport.”

Origin 'working with committee'

In a statement to the media, Origin Energy said it had revised its approach to community sponsorships in the past 12 months away from overall branding opportunities to being more specific.

“This includes providing the opportunity for people to come and learn more about our project activities in the region.

“While we were one of the main sponsors of Easter in the Country last year, we've made the decision to take a different approach this year.

“We're working with the event committee to assist a review and planning process for future events. This includes supporting their application for wider funding to undertake this work, which will enable the continued evolution and long-term success of the event.

“We recognise that events like Easter in the Country are important to encouraging future tourism and investment in the region – and our commitment to supporting community events and initiatives that align with our stated sponsorship policy guidelines remains.

“This includes potentially revisiting our participation in next year’s festival, or alternatively working collaboratively on developing new initiatives and opportunities.”


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