Saturday, February 4, 2023

PR firm advised CFPUA to temper expectations, change language about Governor Cooper

NCDEQ Secretary MIchael Regan, Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White, Governor Roy Cooper. This was Cooper's first visit to Wilmington after the GenX became public. (Port City Daily photo / MICHAEL PRAATS)
NCDEQ Secretary MIchael Regan, Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White, Governor Roy Cooper. This was Cooper’s first visit to Wilmington after the GenX became public. (Port City Daily photo / MICHAEL PRAATS)

WILMINGTON — It was several weeks after GenX hit the news before Governor Roy Cooper first visited the region to publicly discuss North Carolina’s handling of the issue. For some, it was a victory: the state was taking an interest in the problem. For others, the delay had already established irreconcilable divisions. It appears those divisions may have bled over from the political sphere to the area’s public utility.

On Friday, July 21, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Executive Director Jim Flechtner was drafting a statement about what the authority expected the following Monday, when Cooper planned to visit. According to an email containing his draft of that statement, Flechtner appeared optimistic and confident in Cooper and the state agencies tasked with dealing with the GenX issue.

Flechtner wrote:

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority looks forward to the Governor meeting with our community leaders on Monday. We are certain he shares our concern over Chemours discharging GenX to the Cape Fear River, as well as for water quality as a whole. We look forward to ongoing commitments from NCDEQ and NCDHHS to ensure our source water are protected, the state understands and documents health effects, and our customers can rely on the full complement of state resources to ensure this type situation does not happen again in North Carolina.

Eckel and Vaughan, which contracted with CFPUA for $65,000, made changes to the language used about Governor Cooper's visit to discuss GenX. (Port City Daily photo / FILE)
Eckel and Vaughan, which contracted with CFPUA for $65,000, made changes to the language used about Governor Cooper’s visit to discuss GenX. (Port City Daily photo / FILE)

At the time, the CFPUA did not have an in-house communications officer and had contracted the Raleigh-based public relations firm of Eckel & Vaughan to aid it in its response. Flechtner’s draft statement was forwarded to Anna-Marshal Wilson, an account supervisor, for review.

“One minor tweak”

Wilson wrote Fletchner back:

We think this looks good, with one minor tweak. We believe the county’s perspective is that the governor does not share (or at least the same level thereof) the county’s concern over the discharge or water quality. We’ve made one minor edit to the second sentence to reflect that (from “we are certain that” to “we certainly hope that,” and added the word “of” between “type” and “situation” in the last sentence.

Wilson’s adjustments were minor, but they seem to imply that New Hanover County felt Cooper was not fully engaged with the issue.

That was partially true: it was not a secret that Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White was frustrated with Cooper’s response. After a brief phone call with the Governor on Monday, July 17, White penned an open letter to Cooper asking a series of pointed questions.

“For 42 days, for the first 47 days he seemed non-responsive and unaware. For the first 42 days, up until that brief conference call, we had not heard at all from him — and we were certainly in contact with the DEQ and DHHS,” White said.

Commissioner Patricia Kusek, who also serves on the CFPUA Board, shared White’s disappointment, she said. Although specifically aware of the changes made to Flechtner’s statement, she described the time as “incredibly frustrating.”

Kusek added, “I hate to put it this way, but without all the yelling and screaming we did in southeast North Carolina, we would have been months more before we even got someone on the phone.”

But not everyone on the county Board of Commissioners felt this way. Commissioners Jonathan Barfield said Rob Zapple have both been supportive of the Governor and state agencies.

Related story: New Hanover County Commissioners split over GenX funding vetoed by Governor Cooper

Barfield said, “I had felt that the DEQ and the DHHS were the appropriate agencies to deal with this. In our conversations with (DEQ Secretary) Michael Regan, we agreed that the state should handle this, in a top-down way, to deal with the issue at the broadest level.”

Barfield said he’d never heard about CFPUA altering their language to reflect diminished expectations in Cooper’s response to GenX.

“I was never consulted about a language change or our expectations. I’m a senior member of the board, and I wasn’t consulted about anything like that,” Barfield said.

According to Wilson, none of the commissioners were consulted – or offered their perspective – before Eckel & Vaughan suggested the change.

So where did the “county’s perspective” come from?”

Accuracy and instinct

According to Wilson, “No one at the county gave us this impression. We were simply trying to provide guidance to our client that, given the unknowns of the visit at the time, we did not want to come across as 100 percent confident until we knew what the visit would entail. It honestly comes down to being as accurate as possible.”

Wilson would not say specifically how Eckel & Vaughan assessed the county’s perspective, or why the county’s perspective was a factor in shaping Flechtner’s statement. In response to those questions, Wilson said, “It comes down to accuracy and instinct. Our job is to provide strategic counsel, and help our clients be as accurate as possible. With all of the unknowns…this was strategic counsel based on our instinct at the time without knowing what (Governor Cooper’s July 24) visit would entail.”

According to Peg Hall-Williams, Chief Communication Officer for CFPUA, the changes were made to avoid “preempting the meeting” with Cooper.

Hall-Williams said, “CFPUA’s top priority is to provide the highest quality of drinking water to our customers, and our partnerships with state agencies are critical in that endeavor. Not wanting to preempt the meeting with the Governor, CFPUA approved recommended language changes to the statement in question. The Governor, DEQ and DHHS have taken strong and meaningful actions on water quality concerns in the Cape Fear River, and we will continue to support those actions in any way we can.”

Hall-Williams added that CFPUA’s close working relationship with New Hanover County made the county’s perspective important. However, she declined to speculate on how Eckel & Vaughan got a sense of the county’s feelings on Cooper, saying, “(w)e would not want to make any assumptions or guesses about where that ‘sense’ arose.”

Recommended language changes for CFPUA statement by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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