Coal PR: Slap More Lipstick on that Pig

In Washington, you can tell always tell how bad things are for a politician or an interest group when they feel the need to brag about getting any good media coverage.   When it comes to big coal and the utilities that use them, the last few months have been brutal.  

Needless to say the Keystone Kops coal PR team is out in force.   The most recent example of these "masters of manipulation" comes from the Associated Press:

"The massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant last month wasn't so much 'catastrophic' as it was a 'sudden, accidental release.' That's according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press that was prepared by TVA's 50-member public relations staff for briefing news media the day after the disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. The nation's largest public utility has been accused by environmentalists and affected residents of soft-pedaling the seriousness of the flood of toxin-laden ash that filled inlets of the Emory River and swept away or damaged lakeside homes. Steve Smith, director of the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told a U.S. Senate committee that TVA downplayed the potential toxicity of the ash and the extent of the damage immediately afterward and for several days more."

According to AP, the TVA PR flacks pulled out all the stops:  "[A] memo was edited to remove 'risk to public health and risk to the environment' as a reason for measuring water quality and the potential of an 'acute threat' to fish.  A reworked description of fly ash noted it mostly 'consists of inert material not harmful to the environment,' while references to 'toxic metals' in the ash were moved to a section on water sampling."

The challenge the TVA PR team faced pales in comparison to the people who are trying to peddle the myth of clean coal. Earlier this month, DeSmogBlog's Kevin Grandia uncovered coal pr firm The Hawthorn Group for their intemperate boasting about their work 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."

Obviously, the folks at the Hawthorn Group missed such recent articles as "The Myth of Clean Coal" in Time magazine!

Some local reporters aren't drinking the kool-aid either. The Kentucky Courier-Journal's James Brugger reported that the spill makes tougher the task of persuading the public that coal can be clean. He asked ACCCE's coal-booster Joe Lucas about it, and Lucas admitted "There is 'no such thing as a perfect energy resource."'

All kidding aside, it does make sense to keep tabs on the webs of deception the coal PR people are spinning.

A new discussion paper -- How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change by Eric Pooley, of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy --  makes it clear that the ongoing campaign of deception designed to stymie action on climate change has in fact confused a lot of reporters and editors.