Pipeline protest built on inflammatory PR
People gather at an encampment by the Missouri River, where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on September 3, 2016. The Indian reservation in North Dakota is the site of the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. Indigenous people from across the US are living in camps on the Standing Rock reservation as they protest the construction of the new oil pipeline which they fear will destroy their water supply. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s happening out in North Dakota? Well, that seems to depend on who you ask. What isn’t in dispute – possibly the ONLY facts not in dispute – is that an oil company wants to build a pipeline and members of multiple Native American tribes are trying to stop it.

Members of the First Nations, whom the media simply dubbed “The Protesters” are arguing that the oil companies are trying to build the pipeline across sacred tribal land. Meanwhile, the oil company claims they’re on private property, and the tribes are trespassing. That part of the dispute might be solved with a simple deed check, but that’s not the case here. Every time the conversation starts to go in that direction, suddenly the narrative shifts to treaties, some more than a century old, as well as other histories of broken agreements between the Natives and the U.S. government.

While the debate rages on, social media and even some national news networks are picking up the narrative, trying to make some sense out of all the shouting, the situation on the ground is deteriorating quickly. Weeks after protesters made the news when they were pepper-sprayed and attacked by police dogs, other protesters were forcibly removed from what the company building the Dakota Access pipeline called private property.

In response or retaliation, protesters burned cars and built other roadblocks along a North Dakota state highway. Much of the standoff has been recorded by cell phone cameras or even drones. That footage has made it onto social media, unfiltered by an unbiased press, and that has people across the continent taking sides.

One side, represented by Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault, has unilaterally condemned the actions of security and police who have successively moved and removed groups of protesters along the planned pipeline route. Archambault accused the state of collaborating with the pipeline company in order to escalate tensions and force a confrontation, which would likely go bad for the outmanned and outgunned protesters.

That’s not to say the protesters are without resources. They’ve repeatedly proven to be a thorn in the encroaching oil pipeline, putting up roadblocks using plywood and using disabled vehicles to block highways and bridges. That prompted law enforcement to don riot gear and roll up in armored military vehicles.

Morton County Sheriff spokesman, Rob Kellar, told the media, “that is not a safe place to be.”

Earlier in the month, much of the public sympathy was with the protesters after a veteran reporter was arrested for, essentially, doing her job. Released after a public official couldn’t make the trumped up charges stick, the reporter condemned the behavior of the police and the officials.

And that may have been the catalyst driving the entire narrative but for a new narrative being floated by the oil companies. The protesters, they say, are not on tribal land, they are encroaching on private property. And, once again, that brings the narrative back around to a game of “who do you believe.”

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.