Friday, March 14, 2008

Santee Cooper's Fear Tactics

Santee Cooper plays scary media hardball

Santee Cooper has spent about $150,000 this year on a slick media campaign that critics say used negative political-style messaging to build support for a new coal-fired power plant.


By Andy Brack


Judge for yourself. A recent newspaper ad featured a picture of a frowning electrical outlet with this headline: “A future without enough electricity is scary.” The text of the ad outlined how the state would outgrow its electricity supply within five years and how Santee Cooper, a public utility, was planning to meet the need by building a new power plant.
“That’s the kind of thing we decry when there are two candidates who are tearing each other up and they do that without the benefit of public funding,” said environmental leader Dana Beach of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. “Here is a publicly-funded agency using fear tactics to torque a very important and very complex policy decision in its favor.”
Santee Cooper spokesperson Laura Varn said the advertising campaign also included messaging on how it planned to build a new coal-fired plant in the Pee Dee with the latest technology and how Santee Cooper had a long history of environmental leadership.
“We’re not trying to go over the line, but we’re not trying to sugar-coat it either,” Varn said. When asked whether the “scary” ad was good, she added, “We thought it was a way to effectively communicate the seriousness of the situation and our proactive solutions to it.”
She noted the state, one of the fastest growing in the country, faced a looming shortage of electricity. A new coal-fired 600-megawatt plant recently opened as the third plant at the utility’s Cross facility; a fourth is expected to open next January.
“That power is essentially spoken for when we turn it on,” she said.” By 2011, the utility will start facing capacity challenges with what it generates, which is why she said it needed another plant in Kingsburg. The proposed Pee Dee “campus” has raised the ire of environmentalists because it would, in part, add to mercury pollution in an area already with levels that are too high.
Concerns about opposition to the plant spurred the utility into overdrive last year when it signed an 18-month communications contract with Rawle Murdy, a Charleston advertising agency. A January Freedom of Information Act request by S.C. Statehouse Report about Santee Cooper’s relationship with the agency revealed:
General invoices. The contract includes a $10,000 a month minimum retainer for the agency, but invoices show costs generally to be well over the retainer. In November, for example, Rawle Murdy sent a one-page bill for $251,005 to Santee Cooper that included three simple one-line explanations of work: Professional services ($54,849.02); creative development ($195,692.50); and expenses ($463.48).
Varn said the utility worked “hand in glove” with the agency, which did not return a call for comment, with daily phone calls and meetings two or three times a week. As such, it was acutely aware of what the agency was doing on its behalf and more detailed invoices weren’t needed, she said. Work has included development and creation of two Web sites, messaging, a $57,000 poll and a January-February media campaign on the radio, billboards, newspapers and the Internet.
Million-dollar account. Invoices show the agency sent bills to Santee Cooper for $557,343.11 for work from July through December 2007. During the same time period, the utility paid $397,563.70. The difference was that an invoice for November work ($95,914.41) and postage costs for a brochure were not paid in 2007 due to payment cycles.
Varn said the communications agreement between the utility and agency likely would be the equivalent of a $1 million a year account for the agency. The costs of the January-February media buy, projected by Varn to be about $150,000, came this year and were not part of the FOIA response.
Expensive advice. According to the documents, the advertising agency’s billing rates were $400 per hour for chairman David Rawle; $300 per hour for president Bruce Murdy; and $175 per hour for the client services director, creative director, public relations director and interactive services director. The lowest hourly rate was $80 for travel.
Bottom line: Santee Cooper hired an agency to develop messaging that, in part, intended to scare South Carolinians into supporting a new power plant. But in doing so, perhaps it showed another face: that it is, in fact, a little scared that public opposition might have been getting too strong.
Santee Cooper is a public utility. That means we own it. It shouldn’t use our money to scare us into submission.

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