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Toxic public relations.

Toxic Public Relations

Last month, Jerry Halsell, industrial recruiter for the city of Jacksonville, had some prime prospects coming to town to look at his number one property, the abandoned 218,000-SF Franklin Electric Building.

Over the past three years, more than 100 of Halsell's prospects have taken a look at the massive building that once employed 1,000 workers in its heyday and shocked the town when it closed down.

Halsell's latest prospects were set to tour the Franklin building at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 12, but the night before Halsell had his work cut out for him: ABC's "Primetime Live" was doing a segment on Jacksonville's toxic waste problem, and the news wasn't expected to be good.

"They crucified Jerry Jones," says one local business leader. "I don't know that any of us would look too good."

Hosted by Sam Donaldson and viewed by millions, the October telecast at one point compared Jacksonville to Love Canal, a name synonymous in the public mind with chemically contaminated residential neighborhoods and government cover-ups. An Environmental Protection Agency researcher who had worked at Love Canal advised all Jacksonville residents to, "Get the hell out of there."

In the black-and-white morality play of "Primetime Live," Jacksonville's rich and powerful were aligned with an EPA interested only in burning the dioxin as quickly as possible, regardless of potential problems (read State Rep. Mike Wilson cast in the leading role as the arrogant, insensitive, wealthy attorney).

Against them stood the town's environmental activists - the good guys - sounding the alarm: free-thinking citizens whose parents and children have suffered from chemically contaminated seizures and death that they allege the city's powerful continue to deny (see Jeff Shelton as the man whose three-month-old son died from what he thinks was contaminated tap water).

"Take them out to dinner and make sure they don't get back to their hotel room before 10 p.m.," Halsell told his industrial proposal's chaperones the night "Primetime" aired. His logic made perfect industrial recruiting sense. "They didn't see that prior to looking at the building, because if they had they wouldn't have an open mind."

Eventually, Halsell says, he always tells his prospects the truth as he sees it about Jacksonville: that the city has three Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites; that many people are concerned about health hazards, but no scientific evidence locally has ever linked dioxin exposure to public health problems; and that the incineration about to begin will hopefully get rid of the problem altogether.

But from this point on, Halsell will probably have to deal with the town's nasty public image up front. For as surely as Little Rock, rightly or wrongly, is still identified with the 1957 Central High School crisis decades later, so Jacksonville has become "Dioxinville, U.S.A." in the minds of millions.

It's a public relations disaster of the first order, and the great irony is that a business backlash helped start it all six months ago. It's a classic study in how not to handle bad publicity and what can go wrong when you do.

Stick To Your Recipes

On April 5, the Jacksonville Daily News, a struggling small-town paper with a chronically overworked and underpaid staff, ran a short, front-page story recapping a Family Circle magazine piece listing 17 cities at risk nationwide because of chemical contamination. The article quoted just one person, local environmental activist Ruby Brown, about the city's health problems, and only briefly mentioned that Jacksonville officials disagreed with Brown's conclusions. The newspaper's headline read, "City ranked one of worst health-risk areas."

Response to the article from business and political leaders was immediate.

Leading the attack was Mike Wilson, local attorney and legislator, who co-owns 160 acres of land in the city.

"I can hardly express in English my outrage at the headline and article in the newspaper of yesterday," wrote Wilson to the paper's publishers April 6. After berating the paper's lazy reporting and empty-headedness among other criticisms, he added, "If you had deliberately set out on a course to destroy this community, you could not have done a better job."

Wilson's father, Pat, owns $100-million First Jacksonville Bank and Trust, the city's largest bank, and his brother, Larry, is on the city council. The Wilsons are among the city's most powerful families.

Wilson's letter was followed by an April 8 column by North Pulaski Leader publisher Garrick Feldman who chastised Family Circle's editors for their hypocritical, harebrained, cotton-candy publication. In a subheadline he later claimed was not sexist, Feldman urged them to stick to their recipes.

Wilson's brother, Larry Wilson, wrote a similar blast directly to Family Circle calling their journalism "toxic." In it he challenged the magazine to come to Jacksonville and do an article and concluded with this parting shot:

"Leave the half-baked, innuendo, sensational, sleaze-bag |journalism' to the tabloids."

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce considered boycotting the Jacksonville News to drive it out of business, but the effort died. The final straw came when an angry Jacksonville City Council passed a resolution later that month demanding that Family Circle apologize to the city.

"They felt like they had been pushed and kicked and bad things had been said about the city," says Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim of the mood of the council.

Swaim will probably go down in the history books as one of Jacksonville's most popular mayors. He was recently re-elected to the mayor's office with nearly 58 percent of the vote despite two strong opponents.

An inherently decent man whose style of speech betrays his country roots and salt-of-the-earth integrity, Swaim was philosophically opposed to the resolution, but didn't try to stop its passage. Swaim, like most other town officials, would be tarred with the same brush by Family Circle's follow-up article.

"My concern has always been you don't be confrontational with the press. You can't win," says Swaim. In this case, he was right.

The N.Y. Times, Joan Rivers,

CBS Evening News

By August, Family Circle had completed a 10-page cover story headlined, "Toxic Nightmare On Main Street."

Where the earlier Family Circle piece made only a passing reference to Jacksonville's potential health problem, the August 14 article said clearly the city was being buffaloed by the mayor, the EPA, the Wilsons, the Chamber - "the power brokers versus those people who believe their health is at risk."

Also in August, the Arkansas Democrat ran page after page of special coverage to the problems it saw surrounding the 30,000 barrels of chemical waste at the Vertac plant. Overall, the news slant was very bad.

Then came a front-page article in The New York Times about Vertac; a Joan Rivers show featuring Jacksonville activist Patty Frase; a mention on CBS Evening News; an article in Folio's Publishing News about Family Circle's coverage of the story; and calls to action by environmental groups like Greenpeace all across the country.

And finally, the latest blow: "Primetime Live."

"All I've asked the media to do is state the facts, and they won't do that," says Pat Wilson. He says journalists are uninterested in reporting that Jacksonville was recently ranked the third fastest growing area in house sales in central Arkansas, or that numerous health reports have given the city a clean bill of health. Instead credence is given to the claims of "crazies."

"It makes you pissed off, basically," Wilson says. "I have friends all over the country who have called me asking what in the hell is happening down there."

The Silent Majority

"The city of Jacksonville has just been beaten up with publicity," says Bill Gwatney, president of the city Chamber of Commerce for the past six months.

Gwatney's 32-year-old Chevrolet/GEO /GEO dealership, which was started by his father, Harold, does a robust business on busy U.S. 67-167. Gwatney loves the city and has no intentions of leaving. He blames the town's bad publicity on a small handful of feuding people who have overwhelmed a far larger, silent majority.

"Ten people all of a sudden are the spokespeople for a city of 30,000," Gwatney says. "The silent majority doesn't give the nice five-second soundbites to get on TV or carry signs."

Gwatney hopes the proposed incineration will succeed, and that some sense of moderation has come to the city's Superfund problem.

"Everything bottoms out sooner or later," he says. "I think everybody is ready to put all their past skeletons away and start working toward a brighter future."

That's certainly true, but Jacksonville's new national reputation will probably stick around for a long, long time.

PHOTO : UP IN SMOKE: Jacksonville's one-time image as one of the fastest growing towns in Arkansas and a nice place to live is under attack after reams of bad national publicity over the past six months, some of which compared the town to the notorious Love Canal.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Walker, Wythe Jr.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 5, 1990
Words:1477
Previous Article:Building Arkansas.
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