Give environmentalists credit: they know how to stage a
When President Bush introduced his administration's energy plan last
month by visiting Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania, the green PR machine
Greenpeace arranged for the dumping of five tons of coal outside Vice
President Dick Cheney's residence and held a banner that insisted
America needed clean - not dirty - power. CNN made mention of the
Save Our Environment, a coalition of environmental groups, held a news
conference in Washington, DC announcing its new television
National Environmental Trust president Phil Clapp delivered one of the
statements at the news conference, and then participated in media
All told, Clapp estimates he gave 45 interviews to reporters that week,
in addition to squaring off with an official from the American Petroleum
Institute on NPR's Talk of the Nation.
The Sierra Club hounded the president, staging press conferences and
protests, and running newspaper advertising in the states where he
The ads suggested Bush should have picked more appropriate spots for his
addresses, such as coal-burning power plants as opposed to
environmentally friendly backdrops.
The debate over the president's energy plan dominated the headlines.
And although Bush and Cheney did the media rounds,and largely succeeded
in getting their message across, it was the feisty environmental groups
that made an equally strong impression.
For organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the National
Environmental Trust, this is a crucial period. Not only do they have the
perfect opportunity to spell out their beliefs to the public, the focus
on energy allows them a platform from which to crank up their
fund-raising efforts. Donors always rise when there is a perceived
threat to an organization's goals.
Take Greenpeace, for example. The activist-driven group hits 30 this
year, but still retains its nerve and verve when it comes to PR.
Greenpeace media director Kymberly Escobar says the group still places
emphasis on direct action by staging events that can "put a picture with
the problem and get people talking."
Last month it dropped a banner denouncing the "Toxic Texan" from a water
tower in Crawford, TX, where President Bush has his ranch, days before
the president would address environmental issues in honor of Earth
Then there was the recent coal-dumping, meant to remind people that,
despite talk of conservation, the current administration favors more use
of fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Words speak louder
Public affairs consultant Bart Mongoven of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin, a
Washington, DC public affairs firm, believes that while Greenpeace's
reliance on stunts may not impress the average American, its ability to
stage events that get newspaper coverage still helps the group in the
long run. "People will dismiss a banner dropping but remember the
message on the banner," he says.
Other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, take a less
stunt-heavy and more strategic approach to communications.
Scott Ward, Widmeyer Communications' VP of environmental affairs,
stresses that more environmental groups are practicing integrated
communications, and that the Sierra Club is one example of this new
Sierra Club communications consultant Kim Haddow claims efforts of
environmental groups like hers have had a marked effect on the public's
view of Bush's green credentials. She points to an ABC News poll, held
before the energy plan was unveiled, that gave the president low marks
on both energy and environmental issues.
Sierra Club's issue advertising criticizing Bush's environmental record
aired in November 1999, was sustained throughout the campaign and
continues today. Press coverage is good, says Haddow, but advertising is
the only way to get the message through unfiltered. "Advertising helps
hone the message for the entire organization," she notes.
The Sierra Club has more than 60 chapters nationally and employs a
director of energy and global warming policy - Daniel Becker. The New
York Times quoted Becker just last week as objecting to a move in the US
towards cars run on diesel.
The Sierra Club has become adept at mobilizing its members. For example,
when the president pitched his energy policy, Haddow produced the
advertising, but Sierra Club outposts in the three states he visited
oversaw the press conferences and arranged protests.
The Sierra Club is a force to be reckoned with, especially for public
affairs people who represent governments or companies with energy
One DC public affairs executive describes the group as having the most
impact of all the environmental organizations. "But they are not very
balanced," she says. "They tend to ignore the energy supply
National Environmental Trust (NET), a crew of insiders schooled in the
ways of Washington and the policy world, is the polar opposite of
Greenpeace in operating style.
NET has a staff of 50, which includes former policymakers, political
campaign veterans, and even a former Monsanto executive. And there are
field organizers in more than 20 states that work with other
environmental and progressive organizations on federal issues.
NET's hallmark is an aggressive media operation. "They have people who
know the issues very well and follow the twists and turns of policy
debates," comments one national newspaper reporter. "They're available
to an incredible extent, even late at night."
According to Mongoven, "NET is the most strategically savvy of the
environmental groups. It's like a think tank in that it develops
strategy and recommendations."
The group pays close attention to policy debates, providing briefings
for journalists and publications like America and Energy in 2001, and
uses government and industry data to refute what had been known about
the intentions of the Bush administration on energy.
Ready to pounce
Bruce Josten, the US Chamber of Commerce's EVP for government affairs,
says environmentalists were "simply waiting" to take Bush on over energy
and the environment.
Josten has been doing media interviews as a new coalition, the Alliance
for Energy and Economic Growth (AEEG), starts gearing up.
"(Environmental groups) are clearly ahead of us in terms of taking out
issue advertising," Josten concedes. AEEG is still in its formative
stages but there has been "preliminary discussion" about the possibility
of issue advertising because Josten says "it will take an education
campaign to create a level playing field."
Steve Lombardo, president of StrategyOne, thinks the administration and
businesses have been wise to start stressing support for
But Josten's production-oriented philosophy is unlikely to satisfy
environmentalists who argue more conservation is needed. Observers
expect this debate to extend well into the fall during the Senate's
Unforeseen events like price drops in oil or rolling blackouts may well
impact proceedings. But for now, neither side appears to be expecting an
energy shortage when it comes to the PR wars over the nation's energy
and environmental future.