Frank Maisano at play.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your job actually is? Some of the members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), who see you here, there, and everywhere, representing a range of different industries, were recently trying to pin you down. You’re actually affiliated with the law firm that also employs former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, if I’m not mistaken.
I work for a law firm called Bracewell & Giuliani, and what we’ve done is noticed the nexus between difficult, complex policy issues and the communications aspects of those same issues. We’ve married the substantive policy expertise of Bracewell and Giuliani—lobbying, litigation, whatever it might be—together with the communications aspect that a PR firm would have. Because I’ve been so involved in energy and environmental issues over the years, covering the same issues as the firm, it really kind of put together what I think is one of the most top-level policy communications operations in terms of dealing with major environmental issues. This can range from siting plants or facilities to dealing with significant legislative and policy challenges. We also handle lawsuits involving New Source Review or MTBE, things like that. All of those things have the same type of complex legislative or policy nature to them. And because of that, they require a special kind of communications.
Because I’ve worked so long with many of the great people at the Society of Environmental Journalists and their colleagues around the nation, I’ve been fortunate to get to know a lot of really good environmental reporters. And because of those relationships, working with reporters and trying to be both an advocate and a straight-shooter, I think I’ve been able to continue to build on that success. So other people have sought out our services.
How would that work? Suppose I’m an industry that puts a certain amount of effluent into a river, and I’m getting hammered by the lo
cal chapter of Greenpeace. Do I say, “Hey, I need help with this. I don’t know how to deal with these environmentalists. They’re winning the war of words with me. We need help, we need Bracewell & Giuliani.”
I think part of it is the challenge that you have to understand what is actually happening. Frankly, there are two sides to every story, and we all know that. Sometimes the environmentalists are a little bit less than honest with their motives and intentions, or at least with what the truth is on some of these occasions. I have many friends in the environmental community because of my work here, and I would think that they wouldn’t want to kidnap me and hide me or something like that (chuckle). But for the most part, I get along very well with the people who are on the environmental side. I’m delighted that I do, because they’re really nice people.
You have to look at the issue. There are clearly some bad actors in industry, and I would find it very hard to make a case for someone who was clearly like that. On the other hand, there are utilities that are arguing that they ought to be able to make changes that the environmentalists don’t agree with, that make their plants more efficient and safer, and will allow them to produce electricity more reliably. We all know that low-cost electricity is something that people kind of take for granted in this country. Arguing for those principles is easier, because they are something that is important to consumers.
I understand that you and your colleague, Scott Segal, went together to the movie Thank You for Smoking. Did you identify with Nick Naylor, the tobacco lobbyist character played by Aaron Eckhart in that film?
It is a hilarious movie, of course. I read the book and the film was a little bit different, but I laughed hysterically. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have been the fourth person at the table there. Honestly, it’s about making a case for your interests. It might be an oil company that is providing gasoline so people can get to their jobs or take their kids to school.
It depends on how you make the case a lot of times, especially when it comes to environmental issues. Everyone in the truest sense is an environmentalist in one form or another. Some are just a little bit more rabid than others, and some are a little bit more interested in the economic side of things. I think trying to find that balance between good environmental policy and good economic policy is a difficult and complex thing to do. I will argue vociferously that we try to find that line, and I hope that environmentalists would try to find that line, too. Unfortunately, many times that’s not their first priority, and that’s where we duke it out sometimes. On the other hand, too, Jim, I think it’s important to note that we have a constant swirling debate, and that’s good. The more we can discuss these issues and the more each side presents its case, people can decide. If I want to focus on economic issues, that’s one thing and if environmentalists want to focus on the pollutants in the air and health issues, that’s another thing. I really think that a well-rounded debate makes for better policy. And that’s what my objective is here, for better policy to emerge because we’ve had a vigorous debate.
You’re probably aware of the Frank Luntz memo to the Republican Party about how to deal with environmental issues by using words like “sustainable” and “green” to describe the party"s policies. Do you see the challenges the same way as Luntz?
Look, I don’t see it that way, because I"ve argued and discussed and debated and presented and dealt with environmentalists in the media on these issues for years. I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to these issues, and I’m not going to try and spin a few members to use a few new words to make people feel better about what they’re doing or what they’re not doing. I happen to think that the Luntz memo is kind of politics at its worst, on both sides. The Democrats and environmentalists challenge it to say, “See, they’re not really doing anything, they’re just trying to sell you a story.” And on the other side, the Republicans are trying to put their best message forward, in terms that we know are message-tested.
It’s unfortunately where politics has gone these days. I think, personally, that the problem here is a lack of substance—and I am the exact opposite of that. I want to have a substantive, complex discussion about complex issues that we are working on. And that’s why I have a guy like Scott Segal who knows more about the Clean Air Act and fuels policy than just about anybody. Again, if we can have a substantive policy debate on these issues, rather than soundbiting each other to death, I’m pretty confident that we’re going to do well. Now, I’m not saying we’re going to win every time, but I am confident that we’re going to at least be heard. And that’s half the battle.
Do you think you know the issues well enough to argue the other side just as convincingly?
I probably do. I would think that it would be harder because I don’t think my heart would truly be in it. Part of the reason we’re successful, Scott and I and our team here, and why other people seek us out, is because we have understood the game. We have played it well in terms of anticipating what our environmental friends will do and played the game from the industry side very much like the environmentalists do. In other words, we release studies and do aggressive, quick-response media relations and things like that, and those are things that traditionally industry groups have fallen short on.
I think our model was to emulate how environmental groups react quickly, rapidly, substantively with their messages, while industry guys said, “Well, we need to see the lawsuit before we make a comment on it.” Our group is not in that mode. We are a quick-moving, rapid response policy group. Because of that, we haven’t won the debate, but we have leveled the playing field for the debate and become a substantive resource to many of the good people in the environmental journalism community. And because of that, they seek us out the same way they seek environmentalists out. Of course, there are fewer of us, and there are a lot of environmental groups they can talk to. I’m always laughing at the competition of the environmental groups to get into the story. We don’t have that challenge as much, because there aren’t many groups like our little group and we move with that cat-like quickness.
How do you deal with groups like Rainforest Action Network, which I think has rather brilliantly used the threat of boycotts and organized consumer resistance to bring some corporations to their knees and capitulate on issues?
I frankly just like to call their tactics out. Part of the reason that they’ve been so successful is that some groups in industry haven’t wanted to have that fight. Now I’m always the one who gets called when the nice lady from New Jersey files a shareholder resolution. I get called to say, “She’s challenging Exxon or Southern or whatever, what do you think?” And I never, never demeaned anybody for having strong beliefs, and I just say, “Honestly, I think there’s another side of the story that they’re not talking about. And it’s provi
ding reliable electric power, it’s providing effective service.” Whatever it may be in that instance, there always is another side of the story.
In my mind, you just hit that nail head-on with your key points and you do what you do. For years, industry refused to talk about the good work they did on the environment, and today, that’s less of a problem. Everybody has environmental stewardship reports, everybody has work in their communities. Southern Company is building a coal plant that is one of the newest technological giants, there are utilities building wind turbines here, there, and everywhere in the country. Industry has become very aggressive in finding new ways to address a lot of these issues that people like [the now folded] Ozone Action, Rainforest Action Network and others have always made their attack line. I think now industry as a whole is operating much more efficiently and they’re much better at responding to these things because they’re actually walking the talk.
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.
Electric Reliability Coordinating Council
Bracewell & Giuliani
Center for Media and Democracy (Publishers of Toxic Sludge is Good for You)