Clean Coal Marketing Campaign

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

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This article is part of the CoalSwarm coverage of "clean coal."
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Created by the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) in 2000, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) is a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at emphasizing the importance and downplaying the environmental impacts of coal-fired power production. CEED, which owns the domain name for ABEC's website, was founded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, and DTE Energy.[1] ABEC's members include:[2][1][3][4][5]

In 2006, these fifteen companies had total revenues of $146.5 billion.

In 2001-2002, ABEC ran several commercials over 1,000 times in the Washington, D.C., area. The ads argued that over 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal and claimed that the power industry had invested $50 billion in making coal "cleaner" (this figure can be compared with the total $3.5 billion U.S. investment in renewable energy in 2005).[6][7]

The "Clean Coal" campaign

The marketing campaign of the coal industry uses the term "Clean Coal" in reference to futuristic promises of zero-emissions coal, when coal can be used without environmental damage. The technology behind the development of zero-carbon emissions coal is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is a means of separating out carbon dioxide when burning fossil fuels, collecting it and subsequently “dumping” it underground or in the sea. CCS is an integrated concept consisting of three distinct components: CO2 capture, transport and storage (including measurement, monitoring and verification). All three components are currently found in industrial operation today, although mostly not for the purpose of CO2 storage.[8]

As described in the article Clean Coal Technology, there are no coal-fired power plants in commercial production which capture all carbon dioxide emissions, making the process still theoretical and experimental and a subject of feasibility studies. It is has been estimated that it will be at least fifteen to twenty years before any commercial-scale clean coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) are commercially viable and widely adopted.[9] This time frame is of concern to environmentalists because of the belief that there is an urgent need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to protect the world economy.[10] Even when CO2 emissions can be caught, there is considerable debate over how the necessary storage process would occur.

In November 2008, former Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore said this of the coal industry's promises of a carbon-free future for coal power plants:

"[C]lean coal" [is] too imaginary to make a difference in protecting either our national security or the global climate. Indeed, those who spend hundreds of millions promoting “clean coal” technology consistently omit the fact that there is little investment and not a single large-scale demonstration project in the United States for capturing and safely burying all of this pollution. If the coal industry can make good on this promise, then I’m all for it. But until that day comes, we simply cannot any longer base the strategy for human survival on a cynical and self-interested illusion.[11]

2008 U.S. presidential campaign

In 2007 - in a reaction to increasing public opposition to coal-fired power, and in an attempt to influence the 2008 U.S. presidential elections - ABEC increased its annual public relations and advertising budget from $8 million to $30 million, hired the advertising firm R&R Partners (whose CEO, Billy Vassiliadis, is also a Nevada advisor to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama), and launched a high-profile advertising campaign to coincide with the 2008 presidential primaries and general elections, spending $1.3 million on television, billboard, newspaper, and radio advertisements in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina over several months alone.[12] Teams of ABEC supporters, many of them paid, have canvassed outside presidential debates in several states. On December 21, 2007, ABEC sent 30 campaigners dressed in Santa suits to the U.S. Capitol; the Santas delivered stockings full of coal-shaped chocolate to legislators, and promoted the benefits of coal energy.[13] On January 21, ABEC sponsored a CNN Democratic presidential debate - at which no questions about global warming were asked.[14]

In January 2008, the Washington Post reported that ABEC "is waging a $35 million campaign in primary and caucus states to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change." As of mid-January, ABEC had spent $1.3 million on ads in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina. The ads talked about "clean coal" and "70 percent cleaner" coal plants, though those reductions have been mostly in non-greenhouse gases. [15]

ABEC also deployed staffers to the January 15, 2008, Democratic candidates' debate. "About 50 people, many of them paid, walked around as human billboards and handed out leaflets outside Tuesday's Democratic debate in Nevada with questions for voters to ask the candidates," reported the Washington Post. [15]

In August 2008, the group, now ACCCE, planned to spend $2 million at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions promoting "clean coal" as the nation's energy solution. The Center for Public Integrity found that ACCCE spent $4.7 million on lobbying and efforts in the first six months of 2008 - more than any other organization devoted solely to influencing climate change legislation, and more than five times the amount spent by either the leading wind or solar industry groups.[16]

Hawthorne letter

In late 2008, Suzanne Hammelman of the Virginia-based public relations firm the Hawthorn Group sent out lengthy report to "friends and family" outlining the work that Hawthorn had done on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The newletter is worth quoting in toto, since it accurately outlines in detail how Hawthorn promoted coal during the Presidential election.[17][18]

We thought the most fixated of the political and communications "junkies" might find interesting some highlights of a recent grassroots campaign Hawthorn created and managed for the American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).
It was a great program and we want to thank ACCCE for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing effort that also included targeted advertising and traditional and online media relations.
This campaign was focused in key states during the 2008 primary and general election campaign. Our challenge was to get the candidates, media, and opinion "influencers" to start talking about the importance of American coal to our energy future and the need to fund clean coal technology.
Even in a communication-saturated environment we achieved, even exceeded, our wildest expectations (and we believe those of our client!). Not only did we raise the awareness of the issue, but we got the major candidates on both sides of the aisle talking about the issue in the debates, at campaign rallies and in interviews. We did this by finding creative ways to increase the visibility of the issue and by demonstrating strong voter support. We successfully integrated traditional communication and grassroots tactics with online strategies and tools.
The presidential campaign concluded with both candidates, their running mates and surrogates talking about and supporting clean coal technology. The issue was mentioned in all four general election debates. This was a 180-degree turn from earlier in the campaign when none of the candidates were focused on this issue.
The program also had an impact on the perception of coal among public opinion leaders. In September 2007, on the key measurement question—Do you support/oppose the use of coal to generate electricity?—we found 46 percent support and 50 percent oppose. In a 2008 year-end survey that result had shifted to 72 percent support and 22 percent oppose. Not only did we see significantly increased support, opposition was cut by more than half. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain addresses a crowd wearing "Clean Coal hats" in Pennsylvania.
Building on our existing 200,000-strong grassroots citizen army, we leveraged the presidential candidates' own supporters, finding advocates for clean coal among the crowd to carry our message. We got these on-the-spot advocates to show strong public support to the candidates and to the media, and enhanced that visibility by integrating online media that created even more of a buzz. We did this by sending "clean coal" branded teams to hundreds of presidential candidate events, carrying a positive message (we can be part of the solution to climate change) which was reinforced by giving away free t-shirts and hats emblazoned with our branding: Clean Coal. Attendees at the candidate events wore these items into the events.
We nearly turned candidate events into clean coal rallies.
The sea of supporters cheering their candidate while wearing the ACCCE message was a game changer. We watched as our message was transmitted by shirts and hats waved by thousands of excited supporters from the stands of high school gyms, floors of hotel ballrooms and tables of crowded coffee shops.The pictures of our supporters were caught and broadcast by local and national media, including USA Today and Fox News. Soon our message was repeated back to us from the podium by the candidates themselves.
We used e-mail newsletters and social media Facebook, YouTube, Flickr to share the excitement and success with what we were doing both with our own members and the broader public. The content was driven by photos and videos of our teams interacting with candidates and the crowds at their events. As much as possible we got our "audience" talking to us about their support for clean coal. (Example: www.youtube.com)
Our visibility increased the numbers of people joining our grassroots network online by 190 percent, and increased traffic to our Web site by 186 percent. Some of our videos were in the top 100 watched in YouTube's non-profit category.
How did we do it? We took a two-pronged approach. The first part of our strategy was to raise visibility for clean coal at campaign events. The second part was to get media visibility in swing districts in the states by conducting media "whistle stop" tours.
CAMPAIGN EVENTS
Our approach at candidate events included the following:
  • We placed teams in early primary/caucus states, and key battleground states during the fall general election
  • We used branding for "clean coal" and "America's Power" consistent with our national advertising campaign
  • The team drove a branded, flex-fuel mini-van to events for added visibility
  • At each event, we handed out tee shirts and hats with "clean coal" and our logo and Web url; as well as literature on our issue, to as many event attendees as possible as they stood in line waiting to enter the event
  • In the colder months, we also gave out cups of coffee bearing our logo
  • Took hundreds of photos and shot video of our activities and posted on our Web site, blog, Facebook page, Flickr account and YouTube channel
  • We constantly mobilized our existing grassroots citizen army to mail and e-mail the candidates and ask for support of clean coal technology: Candidate Survey
  • As we attended rallies, campuses, diners and worked town squares, we distributed sign-up cards inviting voters to join our grassroots network
  • We routinely e-mailed our grassroots network our schedule, as well as links to the photos and videos online. Example e-mail
  • We created and passed out business cards with our Web site, blog, Facebook page, Flickr account and YouTube channel to campaign event attendees.
MEDIA WHISTLE STOP TOURS
The purpose of these tours was to raise the awareness of clean coal in communities we expected the candidates or their surrogates to visit. Elements included:
  • Using our internal polling, overlaid with national political polling, we targeted counties that we deemed to have a high percentage of swing voters.
  • We issued a media advisory letting the local media know a national "clean coal" campaign was coming to their town center.
  • We dropped by media outlets to distribute our media packets, have pictures taken and in some cases conduct an interview.
  • During these stops we would also visit the county courthouse, meet with local elected officials (many of whom are members of our existing grassroots citizen army) and visit local diners to distribute our materials, including clean coal placemats with our message and branding.
  • We would also visit any local colleges or universities and pass out hats, tee shirts and literature in the student unions or common area of campus.
  • In addition, we set up shop at local events where we were sure to draw the attention of large crowds, such as football games, the World Series games that were played in Philadelphia, county fairs and the North Carolina State Fair.
DURING THE ELECTION PHASE OF THE PROGRAM
  • We directly reached over 50,000 people at candidate events (talked with them, handed them information).
  • We indirectly reached over 1,000,000 people attending the candidate events (they saw our hats, t-shirts and other collateral). This does NOT count the people who saw news reports of our activities on TV and in the newspapers.
  • We traveled over 44,500 miles in the seven states—exposing many more people to the branded Clean Coal Vans and teams as they traveled through the states. (That's almost twice around the world at the equator!)
  • We stopped in 207 cities and towns along the way.
  • Our YouTube videos were viewed by over 17,000 people.
All of this produced a clear result: ACCCE found a way to break through the clutter and noise and make our issue front and center. President-elect Obama and Senator McCain, their running mates and their surrogates adopted our language and included it as part of their stump speeches. ACCCE shaped the debate by finding supporters of the candidates and turning them into clean coal advocates.
We believe this campaign is noteworthy because of our measurable success. It is different than other corporate, coalition and association campaigns because we used political campaign organizing effectively in a public affairs campaign and integrated traditional techniques with social media. It was innovative because we were able to find among the candidates' own supporters—in addition to our 200,000 member grassroots network—enough grassroots advocates to influence the candidates.
Here is what we learned
1. Social media requires socializing in the real world. Our YouTube videos became popular because they contained interactions between us and many voters in many states. It wasn't just us talking TO people, it was us talking WITH people and making them part of the story.
2. "Positive" sells. We took a difficult, controversial issue and presented it positively, talked to people about being part of a solution, and had fun.
3. Devising and implementing a strategy that focused on going where the news was happening and the crowds were gathering gave us greater results than trying to make people and news come to us.
We became an integral part of the story rather than fighting for news in a saturated communications environment.

Articles and Resources

Sources

  1. 1.0 1.1 Largest Gas & Electric Utilities, Fortune website, accessed February 2008.
  2. "ABEC Supporters", Americans for Balanced Energy Choices website, accessed February 2008.
  3. Largest Railroads, Fortune website, accessed February 2008.
  4. "Cooperative Businesses in the United States", National Cooperative Month Planning Committee, October 2005 (PDF).
  5. "Overview of the United States Coal Mining Industry", Weir International, December 2006.
  6. "Renewables - Global Status Report - 2006 Update", Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, accessed February 2008 (PDF).
  7. "About ABEC", archived version dated August 30, 2004.
  8. Carbon Capture and Storage
  9. "What is 'clean' coal and can it really save Australia's environment?", crikey.com, February 20, 2007.
  10. Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, BBC News, October 30, 2006.
  11. Al Gore, "The Climate for Change," New York Times, November 9, 2008.
  12. Coal Group Seeks PR Firms, O'Dwyer's PR Daily (sub req'd), September 26, 2007.
  13. "Lump of Coal a Good Thing, Group Believes", The Hill, December 19, 2007.
  14. "No Questions On Global Warming Asked At CNN’s Coal Industry-Sponsored Presidential Debates", Think Progress blog, January 22, 2008.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Steven Mufson, "Coal Industry Plugs Into the Campaign", Washington Post, January 18, 2008.
  16. "Big Coal's Big-Time Lobby", Matthew Lewis, Center for Public Integrity, August 25, 2008.
  17. Kevin Grandia, "Coal lobby PR firm memo boasts about manipulating Democrats and Republicans," DeSmog blog, January 16, 2009
  18. "To Hawthorn Friends and Family," Hawthorn Group website, December 2008

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