Public relations 101

As reporters, we get press releases all the time. They come from all over the place, whether we want them or not. And we know we can’t always take them at face value.

Take Wednesday for example. As I was writing my story about a coal export hearing from earlier in the evening, two releases landed in my inbox. Both summarized the same event. Sort of.

The first came from the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a well-organized (and well-funded) advocacy group in favor of the Cherry Point terminal and other proposed coal export facilities in the region. Here’s their take:

Supporters in Vancouver Turn Out to Advocate for Northwest Export Facilities

Local Business and Labor Leaders Testify

The press release begins, “In a show of support for the Pacific Northwest trade industry, local residents rallied today at Clark College’s Gaiser Student Center to advocate for proposed bulk export facilities in Northwest Washington.”

The group went on to quote several people, all praising the economic benefits of the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham. The release also included a statement from Bob Watters, a senior vice president with project developer SSA Marine. And it cited an OPB poll showing support for coal exports in the Northwest.

Huh. No mention of the hundreds of people who showed up at the hearing to speak against coal, far outnumbering those who supported the project. Go figure.

Next came a release from the anti-coal group Power Past Coal, sent through the Washington Environmental Council. Here’s how they saw it:

“Sea of Red” Floods Vancouver Opposing Coal Exports

Final week of public hearings draws hundreds

The title references the red shirts many coal opponents wore at Wednesday’s hearing. The release quoted a series of people with concerns about pollution, rail congestion, coal dust and other environmental impacts. At one point, Power Past Coal seems to make a pretty big leap and speak broadly for the entire region.

“Residents from Vancouver and surrounding local communities are outraged about Peabody Coal’s plan to ship tens of millions of tons of coal annually through their local communities en route to the Cherry Point terminal in Northern Washington,” it read.

And later:

“The hundreds in attendance at the Vancouver hearing echoed the choir from communities around the region: whatever Big Coal’s selling, the Northwest isn’t buying.”

Again, not a word from the project supporters who attended the meeting. But to its credit, Power Past Coal at least acknowledged that the other side exists.

It’s also worth noting the timing of those releases. The pro-export group sent its version just before 6 p.m., an hour before the hearing even ended. The anti-coal release came over at 7:19 p.m. I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, portions of those were pre-written.

So there you have it. One event, two press releases, two completely different accounts. Neither paints a complete picture. But with strong backing on both sides, don’t expect the spin to end any time soon…

Eric Florip

Eric Florip

I'm the environment/transportation reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. Contact me at or 360-735-4541.

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