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Monday, April 10, 2006 | A lot of work went into Midge Costanza’s opinion piece that appeared Dec. 23 in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The staff at GCS Public Relations spent 16-and-a-half hours researching, editing and polishing the article, titled “Who will lead on our airport issue?” Costanza, president of the Midge Costanza Institute, a non-partisan public policy group, met twice with Rick Cook, a partner at GCS. They worked to make Costanza’s words more conversational. They discussed a submission strategy. Cook twice spoke with Bernie Jones, the Union-Tribune’s opinion page editor, and kept him updated on the article’s status.
The bill for GCS’s work came to $3,140, according to invoices. The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority paid it.
But anyone reading the article would have had no idea that the authority’s public relations team had shaped Costanza’s words. She does not work for the authority, and the opinion piece did not divulge the authority’s role in drafting it. It appeared to be one person’s concerned opinion, not part of an orchestrated campaign by a public organization.
GCS, which signed a lucrative $3.8 million public outreach contract in Nov. 2004, is a vital tool in the airport authority’s effort to educate the public about the need for a new airport and the process to find a place to put it. And, along the way, they have enlisted the help of Costanza and other opinion leaders to do it.
Costanza’s editorial struck a dire tone, and implored the area’s elected officials to lead the quest to find Lindbergh Field’s replacement. She recited what has become a familiar battle cry for airport authority officials: Lindbergh Field is 661 acres, one-fourth the size of airports in comparable cities. Its lone runway is just 9,400 feet long. Ten years from now, demand could outstrip capacity.
“Ordinary citizens understand that if we fail to address the airport issue this time,” she wrote, “we are playing Russian roulette with our future, as well as our children’s and our grandchildren’s.”
As the authority argues its case for building a new international airport in San Diego, Costanza’s op-ed piece is just one example of the behind-the-scenes work that the public body has undertaken to manage public opinion. A review of nearly two years of GCS invoices obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through a California Public Records Act request opens a window into the effort that, according to polls, appears to be working.
Costanza, who didn’t return a call for comment, isn’t alone in lending her name to the cause. According to GCS invoices, the public relations firm also penned an opinion piece for Marion Blakey, the Federal Aviation Administration’s chief.
GCS staffers — led by partners Rick Cook and Jon Schmid — have offered to write opinion pieces for others in the community, leaving few stones unturned as the authority’s board moves toward a November ballot initiative that could relocate the region’s main airport.
The effort is also raising concerns, even from one board member who said she was unaware of the project. Critics question whether the campaign is an appropriate use of federal funds and say the outreach has crossed the line from education to advocacy. The airport authority is forbidden by law from advocating for specific sites.
Told about the extent of ghostwriting, authority board member Mary Teresa Sessom was aghast.
“We shouldn’t be doing that,” Sessom said. “We should be using that money for education. That’s not education. I’m appalled. I’m not surprised, but I’m appalled.”
Cook and others who work in public relations say the tactic is common. Opinion leaders want to lend their names and support, they say, but are often too busy to write the pieces themselves.
Public relations professionals say GCS’s other tactics are also tools of the trade. GCS ghostwrites opinion pieces and letters to the editor for authority board members. They prepare speaking points when major issues arise. They write speeches and hire pollsters. And they recruit opinion leaders to endorse the authority’s strategy.
According to its contract, GCS is also required to maintain “coalition as well as opposition databases.” Though his firm named it, Cook said the opposition database is a misnomer and does not track individuals or groups who object to a Lindbergh replacement.
Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning, said the overall effort, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, is a necessary tool to keep the public educated about a technical process.
When Schmid called, UCSD economics professor Richard Carson was in the news, questioning the airport authority’s economic analysis. Carson objected to the authority’s assertion that the area will lose $94 billion in gross regional product if a new airport isn’t built. Erie said Schmid wanted to know if he and another prominent airport forecasting expert would respond to debunk Carson.
“They didn’t want to do the research to see whether Carson was right or not,” Erie said. “They just wanted us to write the piece. Or if we didn’t, they’d write it for us.”
Erie turned down the offer, even though he thinks both Carson and the authority have incorrectly analyzed the airport’s economic impact.
“It’s not my job to write a solicited opinion piece,” Erie said. “… I was a little put off. This is not the way the big kids play.”
Erie has long been a GCS target, according to invoices. Eight days after Erie penned a Jan. 2005 column in the North County Times calling for a replacement to Lindbergh Field, Schmid and other GCS staffers discussed him as a potential champion for the project. Schmid and Cook each attended a book talk Erie made later that month. Erie remembered Schmid introducing himself, but couldn’t recall the conversation. (Schmid and Cook billed the authority approximately $800 for attending the two-hour event.)
Cook characterized the recent contact with Erie as a “very general conversation to determine whether he’d be interested in expressing an opinion.”
Not all of GCS’s efforts happen behind the scenes. The public relations firm has pitched speaking opportunities to groups ranging from the Black Contractors Association of San Diego to the Borrego Springs Republican Women Federated. Staff members have e-mailed every Rotary Club in San Diego County. They convinced Vista school officials to allow students to earn credit for attending a local town hall meeting.
Airport officials and authority board members typically attend the meetings and hold question-and-answer sessions. The town halls feature a three-minute, 40-second video that explains the need for a new airport.
The video, which cost about $40,000 to produce, is also replayed on televisions throughout the airport — among the many banners, fliers and signs found in the terminals. In discussing the future, it shows a narrow picture of the present: crowded runways, full waiting areas, bustling ticket check-ins and traffic jams outside the terminals. When it displays projected annual passengers, it uses the highest figure available (33 million) and does not mention the lowest (27 million).
“What’s the worst thing that we could do?” the video’s voice-over asks. “Ignore the inevitable. A solution must be found now.”
With calm music jingling in the background, the voice-over parrots language found in Costanza’s December opinion piece — both in content and sentence structure: “At 661 acres, San Diego’s airport is one-quarter the size of those at comparable metro areas.”
Costanza wrote: “At 661 acres, San Diego International Airport is one-fourth the size of airports in comparable cities.”
As the video concludes, a message pops up: “Make a well-informed decision in November 2006.”
Critics say voters won’t be able to make an educated decision unless they hear both sides of the debate — something they say hasn’t yet happened.
Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog, said federal tax dollars are being spent on one-sided outreach that doesn’t leave room for anything except replacing Lindbergh Field.
“Our concern is that they’ve now crossed the line into advocacy,” Lutar said. “Organizations and individuals with opposing viewpoints should be given an equal opportunity to share their views. So far we haven’t seen that.”
Sessom, Lemon Grove’s mayor and an authority board member, acknowledged the outreach campaign has done a good job educating the public about the technical aspects of the authority’s site selection search.
But she said she worries the outreach campaign has wrongly shaped the public’s perception of Lindbergh Field’s capacity to handle future demands.
“That concerns me,” she said, “because that immediately puts it into the public mindset that there’s nothing we can do at Lindbergh — and I don’t think we’ve fully explored Lindbergh.”
She also questions whether a majority of town hall meetings have avoided areas around Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, one site being considered for the new airport’s home.
“I’m concerned that there is the appearance that we may have carried it a little too far in terms of advocacy,” said Sessom, who has criticized the site-selection process for being too focused on Miramar.
Fellow board member Paul G. Nieto disagrees with his colleague. The promotional materials aren’t advocacy, he said, unless they are lobbying for a specific site or a position the airport authority has taken. An attorney vets the authority’s outreach.
“I think they’ve done a good job on focusing on the educational aspects of this,” he said. “We just need to be squeaky clean.”
Who Are They?
A new airport, which would cost billions of dollars, has been called one of the largest public projects in the region’s history.
The authority formally hired GCS in Nov. 2004, restructuring the contract last October. That boosted the maximum payment from $2.25 million to $3.8 million, while prohibiting coordination of efforts with ASAP-21, a local alliance of groups that support a new airport site.
Tom Gable, Rick Cook and Jon Schmid formed GCS in 2001.
Cook, who bills the authority $200 hourly for his work, has worked in public relations for more than 20 years, on projects ranging from the expansion of Louisville, Ky.’s airport to PNC Bank’s marketing.
Schmid also bills $200 hourly and is a San Diego native. He was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes while a Chicago Sun-Times reporter. While working on this campaign, he won a Bronze Anvil, a Public Relations Society of America prize that recognizes “outstanding public relations tactics,” for producing a four-page airport insert that ran in local newspapers.
Others are involved in the process. New West Public Relations of Louisville has been focused on developing the outreach’s strategy. Roz Winstead, who runs a San Diego-based public relations firm, focuses on community involvement. GCS has performed the work’s majority.
When New West CEO Becky Simpson makes monthly trips to San Diego from Kentucky, the public relations teams often strategize over lunch and dinner, occasionally bringing in other airport political consultants. They’ve spent at least $4,100 on meals that way since May 2004, according to reimbursement reports.
Since GCS took the reigns of the public outreach program, more people are aware of the site selection process and the November ballot initiative, according to a Sept. 2005 poll.
Those polls also check to see how many voters would support a new site. The Sept. 2005 figures showed 66 percent of voters saying they’d vote for a new airport site, up 13 percent from the outset of the campaign.
In late 2005, Cook valued the media coverage resulting from GCS’s work at more than $3 million dollars.
The contract runs through June 2007. Cook said GCS will continue public outreach once the authority board selects a site, educating community members about the board’s recommendation — scheduled for May — and the reasons behind it.