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Advertising Age, September 2, 2009

Verizon Catches Flak for Backing Rally Put on by Coal Producer
Local Sponsorship Undermines National Effort by Marketer to Establish Green Bona Fides

By Rita Chang

SAN FRANCISCO -- Verizon Wireless, which has been trying to establish its green credentials nationally, is finding itself in hot water with environmentalists blasting it for local sponsorship of a rally organized by a coal producer.

The Verizon-sponsored Friends of America Rally in West Virginia is being organized by Massey Energy, which last year agreed to pay a $20 million settlement to resolve Clean Water Act violations at coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a release on its website dated Jan. 17, 2008, that the settlement was the largest civil penalty in its history levied against a company for wastewater-discharge-permit violations.

In a YouTube video promoting the event, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship said the rally will show how environmental extremists are "trying to destroy your job." Among the speakers featured at the rally include Lord Christopher Monckton, a science adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher known for his skeptical views toward climate change.

"This issue is magnified by the fact that Verizon says it's green. You can't be going green and deny that climate change is happening," said Tierra Curry with the Center for Biodiversity, an environmental organization fronting the effort asking Verizon Wireless to drop its sponsorship. "Massey Energy is one of the largest mountaintop-removal mining companies, and we oppose mountaintop removal," because the controversial form of strip-mining threatens wildlife and poses other environmental risks.

Ms. Curry said within two days about 66,000 protest e-mails were sent to Verizon Wireless from its network of supporters, adding that the organization's goal is for more than 100,000 e-mails to be sent before Labor Day. On Twitter, word had spread about Verizon's sponsorship, as people retweeted variations of "Why is Verizon / Wireless sponsoring insane / climate denier speech?" having been in the past four days, broadening the controversy beyond the state and putting it on the national stage.

A Verizon spokeswoman said the sponsorship reflects a "local decision to support the community and sell our products at the event," and the company has no plans to pull out of the event. She added that its on-site presence at the rally does not reflect the company's policy on any public issue.

It's not the first time a company has taken national heat for an event arranged by local representatives. In May rival AT&T was accused of influencing the result of "American Idol" after local reps, unbeknownst to the national headquarters, supplied phones for two finale parties in Arkansas -- home of the victor, Kris Allen -- and taught partygoers to batch text.

Regardless of Verizon's intention, PR executives said if a company underwrites an event that takes a strong view on a combustible issue such as jobs and the environment, it is basically saying it's on board with the organizers' philosophy. "Any level of participation in an event as a sponsor, supporter or even attendee lends the credibility of your corporate brand to that event or cause," said Marc Hausman, president-CEO of Strategic Communications Group.

Mr. Hausman said he advises clients to steer clear of emotional, hot-button issues, though in Verizon's case, he said the company should just follow through. "They've already taken the knocks; if they pull back now, they risk making the other side unhappy."

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