City of Boulder, Boulder County Outsourced Media Contacts, Coordination To EarthRights International In Climate Lawsuit
Part 2 of an on-going series.
The City of Boulder has outsourced their public relations responsibilities to EarthRights International (ERI), the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit providing legal services to three Colorado communities in their joint climate lawsuits.
A Western Wire email to Patrick von Keyserling, Communication Director for the City of Boulder, on Friday, July 20 opened with a series of questions inquiring if the “City of Boulder has any comment on the merits or chances of their case moving forward, now that the Colorado lawsuit has been moved from state to federal court?”
Keyserling responded three days later on Monday, July 23 stating that from now on, “Media inquiries are being coordinated by Marco Simon, Earth Rights International [sic?].”
The City of Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor on April 17. A Western Wire investigation revealed that the planning for the lawsuit began at least one year earlier, in the Spring of 2017. The lawsuit was removed to federal court on June 29.
A Colorado federal judge is still weighing whether the lawsuit should be returned to Boulder County District Court or remain in the U.S. District Court based in Denver.
A Western Wire review of documents received from an open records request from Boulder County finds the City of Boulder’s response consistent with internal messaging and communications that indicate coordination between Boulder County and ERI prior to the formal announcement and signing of the legal agreement to proceed with the lawsuit on April 17.
The emails received through the open records request show that EarthRights International had taken a key role in coordinating the communications front since at least a month prior to the April 17 climate announcement.
In a March 15 email from Kirk Herbertson, Advocacy Strategist for ERI, to Barb Halpin, Public Information Officer of Boulder County, and the rest of the Colorado climate team, Kirk informed them of the media plan moving forward.
“FYI we are putting together a communications document to help keep track of all of the moving pieces. This includes actions & timelines to prepare for the launch, video, website, social media, media outreach, etc. We’ll add in the new info that you provided and should be able to send you the google doc by start of business tomorrow. (But of course, that doesn’t preclude us from discussing the outstanding questions on the call today.),” wrote Herbertson.
In separate emails on April 18 and May 7, Halpin emailed Valentina Stackl, ERI’s Communications Manager, with suggested items for its clips file, both from earther.com.
“I don’t know if this one ever made it into the clips. I’m working on a bunch of other issues today, so didn’t double-check it against your running list. Thanks,” Halpin wrote on May 7.
In the 50-day period between March 8 and April 27, both before and after the climate lawsuit was announced, Halpin repeatedly scheduled communications “check in” invitations between ERI and Boulder County.
Halpin issued at least four invitations directly to Stackl: on March 8 (“Boulder/ERI External Communications checkin”), March 15 (“Boulder/ERI Messaging checkin”), April 19 (“Communications Check in”), and April 27 (“Communications check-in with EarthRights”). According to the documents, Stackl accepted each invitation.
A Halpin email to a group of ERI, Boulder County, City of Boulder, and San Miguel officials, along with Colorado 350.org asks them to help spread the word about the April 17 rally for climate change accountability.
“To help spread word about the April 17 rally, please use these tools: Invitation graphic (attached), invitation verbiage, and link to Facebook event,” Halpin wrote.
Later that day, Halpin forwarded Stackl an email request from Denver Business Journal’s Cathy Proctor.
Proctor had sent a list of questions following the climate announcement. Two hours later, Halpin asked Stackl for help in tackling the questions with a note that said, “Let’s discuss how to break these up. I feel comfortable tackling the ones with my initials after them. Can you take the others?”
“– Can you share a copy of the lawsuit? BH [emphasis in original] — where was the suit filed? (what court) BH — Why against these two companies? (and not others) BH — How did the county get involved? BH — What are the damages (type and $$) the county believes it has experienced due to climate change, and its taxpayers paid for? — How much is the county hoping to recoup? — How much will this cost the county? .. release sez,” Halpin wrote, annotating Proctor’s questions with her initials.
Stackl responded, “Yes, will respond and send your way!”
But as stated by Halpin in another email to Stackl two days later on April 19, a backlash from the announcement had begun to overwhelm Boulder County. The “negative feedback” targeted ERI social media posts that tagged Boulder County, according to Halpin.
“We’re starting to get some negative feedback about all the ERI twitter posts tagging us about the lawsuit. I think it would be best to pull back on the number of posts and let’s address how we move forward with social media on our call this afternoon. Does that work for you? Sometimes less is more when it comes to west culture. Thanks for understanding. Barb,” Halpin wrote.
Stackl responded, “No problem!”
More coordination in handling outside media requests, similar to the Proctor email, indicates a reliance on ERI for vetting journalists who were interested in reporting on the climate lawsuit.
On May 1, Halpin emailed Boulder County and ERI officials stating that she “just received a voice mail from Dave Hasemyer at InsideClimate News. Have you all received a similar call? He just asked that I return his call for a few quick questions. I wanted to reach out to SMC and COB before I called him back to see if you have also received a call from him.”
ERI’s Herbertson responded an hour later, endorsing Inside Climate News. “FYI: Inside Climate News is a great media outlet. They are responsible for a lot of the investigative work that first revealed that Exxon and other companies have known about the climate impacts for decades & concealed what they know,” Herbertson wrote.
Halpin thanked Herbertson. “Good to know. Kirk, why you don’t you or another ERI staff member give Dave a call just to continue to establish a relationship with his publication,” wrote Halpin.
InsideClimate News, with the help of Columbia School of Journalism, published a string of stories documenting ExxonMobil’s climate research that had been used as a springboard and basis for various states, cities, and public officials to launch an investigation.
In a separate example of ERI running media interference, Herbertson had to warn the City of Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County about Western Wire after Amy Markwell, San Miguel County Attorney, emailed the listserv on April 17 to inquire about the author.
“San Miguel received a call from this gentleman yesterday – not too sure if he is already included in your email list: Michael Sandoval, Managing Editor [emphasis in original],” wrote Markwell.
“FYI Western Wire is a communications shop set up by oil industry lobbying group Western Energy Alliance. It publishes articles intended to attack those who are advocating for climate change action,” Herbertson wrote. “If you get contacted by them, please be aware that the reporter’s intention will likely be to try to discredit you and the lawsuit.”
In early May, Herbertson suggested in an email that fellow ERI employees, as well as Boulder County, City of Boulder, and San Miguel County officials read an article at Public Radio International (PRI) that he indicated would help explain the legal theory supporting the climate lawsuits so that local officials could craft their messages to the media more easily.
“Here is a great article that explains the legal theory behind the climate lawsuits. It focuses more on the lawsuits in California, but is still relevant to Colorado. This might be helpful as you continue to respond to any questions/comments about the lawsuit,” Herbertson wrote.
ERI lists several environmentally-focused foundations as funders on its website. According to ERI’s 2017 annual report, donors include: MacArthur Foundation, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund.