Industry flacks learn how to snooker the public with their not-so-eco-friendly messages
This morning, some 50 people powwowed in the chandeliered Ticonderoga conference room of the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill for a conference entitled “Environmental Issues 2004: How to Get Results in an Election Year.” There weren’t more than a handful of environmentalists in attendance — perhaps because the conference was hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers, known to be one of the most anti-environment industry groups in the country. The great attraction of the affair (which cost up to $150 a head) was its keynote speaker — not an industry kingpin, not a bigwig GOP pollster like Frank Luntz, but U.S. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt.
Photo: White House.
Leavitt’s headliner status was peculiar given the focus of the conference: how to craft pro-industry environmental messages to influence the 2004 elections. And this was only Leavitt’s second speaking engagement outside the EPA since he took the agency’s helm. The first was his address two weeks ago to another industry group, the Edison Electric Institute, which all reporters but one were barred from attending. “Leavitt’s NAM appearance reaffirms, if nothing else, that his heart is with industry — the corporate folks are the ones he’s making time for,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust.
Conference organizers unabashedly described the event as a tutorial to help industry representatives bone up on their public messaging skills as they prepare to face off against environmentalists in the cutthroat media circus of an election year. “Many of our members run businesses in arenas to which media is not, shall we say, sympathetic,” said NAM spokesperson Darren McKinney just before the event. “In general terms, we are hoping to provide our members with an education about how environmental stories are created and reported, and how the creation has an effect on the political process in an election year.”
McKinney insisted that NAM is just trying to play the same game as the “Sierra-Club, sky-is-falling crowd.” As he explained it, “We’re all part of the same ballgame, we have the same goals — to get our message out through the media, make our case as best we can, and convince voters to get the type of policy-makers in office who will see things our way.”
Frank Maisano, a spokesperson for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council and one of the most oft-quoted industry apologists in the media, spoke on a conference panel entitled “Crafting Environmental Messages.” Before the event, he told Muckraker that “industry is never going to have an advantage over the enviros in the media — the enviros are always going to be able to say ‘you are killing children’ or they’ll play the asthma card. They’ll make these highly emotionally charged claims — claims that will get more melodramatic in an election year.”
When Muckraker pressed Maisano to outline his strategy for crafting messages, he described a three-pronged approach: 1) distill the regulatory reform in question to its simplest terms and give some easy analogies; 2) explain why the reform is needed and how it will streamline the system, create jobs, balance economic concerns, and so forth; and 3) explain that it will actually improve the environment. “You can take a lot of the issues and use this approach,” he said. “Whether it’s ANWR or MTBE or efficient air conditioners or whatever, you can replace the parts. Simplicity has to come through. The messages can’t be complex.” Maisano conceded that he cannot in all situations argue that there is an environmental advantage to the reforms he advocates, but insisted that in most cases he can.
Another conference participant was Greg Casey, CEO of BIPAC, a political action committee with a mission to elect business-friendly politicians to public office. “Obviously I come from a slightly biased point of view,” he told Muckraker. “I represent the political interests of the American business community. My message is: Now is the time for our message and our messaging mechanisms [for reaching voters] to mature.”
Casey advised executives not to simply direct their messages to the media — which he believes to be a losing battle — but to direct them closer to home: “My suggestion to the business community is you have a natural, affinity-driven relationship with those folks who are your employees, your stockholders, your customers, your suppliers, and your investors. Messages on the environment — and the impact of environmental regulations on industry — should be directed through personal emails and newsletters to these folks who really want to believe their business leaders, and who have a stake in those issues.”
So what did Leavitt have to say on these matters? Well, nothing. He delivered a stump speech that was totally detached from the focus of the conference. In an upbeat tone, he assured manufacturers that environmental quality in the U.S. has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past 30 years and that it’s time to move beyond command-and-control regulations. “We need to do [environmental policy] in a better way that doesn’t compromise our economic competitiveness,” he declared.
One of the few enviros at the conference, Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council, found it troubling that audience members — executives and flacks from companies such as Halliburton and Bristol-Myers Squibb — seemed oblivious to the implications of the policy changes they want to spin. “Over and over people said, ‘We keep hearing that this is the worst administration in history, so how do we sell our message? How do we snooker people? How do we fight back in the messaging wars?'” said Perks. “It was as if it totally didn’t register in their minds that a regulatory crisis was occurring at all. The sole concern was putting a good mask on it.”
While NAM officials may not fancy much of what they read in the media these days, they should be tickled pink by a report entitled “Manufacturing in America,” released by the Commerce Department on Friday, which calls for rollbacks of environmental and other regulations. (Download the report.) The report complains that enviro regs soak up roughly 2 percent of the gross domestic product created by the manufacturing sector, and that the cost of these and other rules is rising faster than the sector’s income — not surprising, perhaps, given that manufacturing income plateaued during the recession of the last two years.
A Small Business Administration study cited in the report found that the cost to manufacturers of complying with regulations was $147 billion in 1997, “or a cost per employee of $7,904.” Environmental regs accounted for nearly half of that — $69 billion in 1997, or a per-employee cost of $3,691 — while workplace-safety rules, tax-compliance regulations, and the like accounted for the rest.
The report calls on the trusty White House Office of Management and Budget to promptly “evaluate … proposed reforms and, when appropriate, implement those reforms on a priority basis.” As Commerce Secretary Donald Evans explained when the report was released, “This is our strategy to remove the barriers that are holding back American manufacturers and costing jobs.”
In a public statement, NAM President Jerry Jasinowski praised the report and complained that because U.S. manufacturers must comply with onerous regulations, they carry a cost burden “22 percent greater than our nine major trading partners.” According to Larry Fineran, NAM’s vice president of regulatory and competition policy, the report is consistent with the Bush administration’s “shift away from command-and-control regulations in order to improve America’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace.”
“The Bush administration today has broken new ground,” Jasinowski rhapsodized, “acknowledging that manufacturing is vital to the nation’s economy, recognizing the unprecedented challenges to our global leadership, and recommending reforms to strengthen our manufacturing competitiveness. … This is the first time in modern history that an administration has made manufacturing in America a top national priority.”
What he didn’t mention, of course, is the trade-off: When the health of the manufacturing industry becomes the top priority, the health of the public at large may get the shaft.
With the New Hampshire primaries looming large, local activists are in high gear trying to get environmental policy concerns a prominent spot on the presidential candidates’ agendas. More than 500 such activists are operating within a group known as the Carbon Coalition, which is coordinating all manner of grassroots activity — from door-to-door canvassing to direct meetings with campaign officers — to convince candidates that their commitment to curbing global warming will be a defining issue in this primary.
Photo: Jason Pietrzak, Carbon Coalition.
“We’ve made a lot of headway in the last month,” said Adam Markham, executive director of Clean Air-Cool Planet and a charter signatory of the coalition. “Most of the candidates weren’t mentioning global warming in their early stump speeches, but now they are putting a lot of emphasis on Kyoto, energy independence, and domestic carbon-reduction programs.”
The “Live Free or Die” state is an appropriate setting for this sort of climate-change rabble-rousing. In 2001, New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to implement a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants with its Clean Power Act. A year earlier, it implemented the nation’s first greenhouse gas registry so companies and institutions could begin tracking their CO2 emissions, laying the groundwork for a cap-and-trade system. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine also recently coordinated on a study predicting the environmental and economic problems that global warming could cause in their states; the study concluded that disruptions to their coveted fall foliage, ski resorts, and maple-tapping season were not only bound to happen, but already in the works.
“Ten years ago, we were predicting what might occur [as a result of global warming], and now we’re just listing off what’s already begun to happen — impacts on the Northern Forest ecosystem, changes in the high alpine habitats of the White Mountains, changes in the maple-syrup industry because tapping season is happening earlier every year,” said Markham. “There are also clear changes in ice and snow conditions that are no small concern for our skiing and snowboarding industry.”
The Carbon Coalition has distributed thousands of posters around the state in preparation for the primaries, emblazoned with such slogans as “Save Our Syrup” and “Slush Sucks.” The group is also working with the National Ski Areas Association to promote “Sustainable Slopes Day” and with NRDC on the ski campaign “Keep Winter Cool,” which will be launched after the primary. Over the next week, a PBS documentary entitled “Climate Change: In Our Backyard” will air in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, chronicling the visible and predicted impacts of global warming in New England.
So far, Markham said, the candidate who has been most enthusiastic about addressing environmental and climate change concerns is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), victor in the Iowa caucuses. Kerry boasts a 96 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters, outscoring all of the other candidates. (Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman comes in second with 93 percent.) Kerry also has an aggressive energy plan, which proposes to get America’s renewable-energy generation up to 20 percent of our total production portfolio by 2020. For the inside scoop on Kerry’s environmental record, his plan for energy independence, and his beloved Harley Davidson Wide Glide, have a look at the Grist interview with Kerry. (Also take a gander at Grist‘s interviews with other Democratic candidates and determine who should, in the electoral sense, live free or die.)
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