Public Theatre

Public relations firms wrote a script for overcoming opposition to Sumitomo's new silicon-wafer plant. City and state officials learned their lines well.

Over the past several months, a public drama has been played out in the Valley news media. The drama has familiar themes: the large multinational company versus local activists. A relatively small group of angry citizens assails government officials who insist they are working for the broad public good. Business fights environmentalists.

The final scenes of this drama seem familiar, too.
The government grants the company, Sumitomo Sitix, quick approval to build a massive silicon-wafer plant in what had been a residential development in northeast Phoenix. The plant's opponents, mostly angry citizens who live near the proposed plant, are left with few options outside court action that offer small chance of success.

There may be a reason the drama surrounding Sumitomo's arrival in Phoenix has seemed so predictable.

A series of remarkable memorandums obtained by New Times shows how Sumitomo's public relations firms mobilized public officials and private agencies over a period of months to counter, confuse and marginalize opposition to the wafer plant.

"We couldn't believe they would type something like that up and put it in a city file," says Liane Waselus, a member of the Coalition of Valley Citizens Opposed to Sumitomo.

Public documents unearthed by coalition members, when combined with New Times research, show that Sumitomo painstakingly scripted a campaign to discredit Sumitomo critics and win over public opinion.

Those documents reveal that Sumitomo or its public relations firms:
* Provided "talking points" for speeches given by Governor J. Fife Symington and Mayor Skip Rimsza in praise of Sumitomo's arrival in Phoenix.

* Directed city employees to act in support of Sumitomo's efforts.
* Aided the infiltration of meetings held by residents opposed to the plant and sent reports on those meetings to city employees.

* Asked members of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council to travel to Japan with a "friendly reporter" from the Arizona Republic in hopes of obtaining favorable coverage of Sumitomo's factories there.

It is hardly unusual for a corporation to engage public relations representatives to burnish the firm's image. It is reasonable for those representatives to create a public relations plan--even a detailed script--for their client to follow.

The extent to which Arizona public officials were willing to follow the stage directions of Sumitomo's PR script is, however, extraordinary indeed.

The earliest memo New Times has obtained detailing Sumitomo's self-promotional campaign is dated November 20, 1995, just a few weeks after opposition to the wafer plant flared up among residents of the Desert Ridge development in northeast Phoenix.

The memo was written by Suzanne Pfister, an employee of Nelson Robb Duval & DeMenna, the Valley's third-largest public relations firm. It's addressed to 11 people: five city employees, two Sumitomo officers, two members of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and two people at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, a quasi-public organization created in 1989 to coordinate municipal efforts to bring new businesses to the Valley.

Under the heading "Status of Activities to Be Conducted," Pfister lays out a to-do list. The list includes a few things for employees of the city of Phoenix to do.

Item one: "Bridgett Hanna [then a city public information officer] is still working with the Arizona Republic to see if the article providing questions and answers on the Sumitomo site will be placed." Hanna is also charged with getting a pro-Sumitomo program on the city's cable-television station. David Kreitor, a city staffer in the business development department, which had been negotiating with Sumitomo since at least the middle of June 1994, is set to write his own opinion piece for Valley editorial pages.

The memo also lays out how the city will deal directly with the plant's protesters: "The City sent out its response to the first letter from the 'Coalition.' No response will be made to their second letter."

Pfister then turns to the Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), which are expected to line up support among their own members and send in additional opinion-page pieces and hold a reception so "business leaders in the Valley can attend to show their support for Sumitomo."

For its part, Nelson Robb Duval & DeMenna would be sending out sample letters to the editor to "interested groups"; the samples could be retyped and sent in to local newspapers. The PR firm also sent a letter to 90 legislators, city council members and members of the governor's staff, telling them to contact NRD&D directly if they had questions and concerns about the wafer plant. "Special meetings" would be set up for the benefit of legislators and City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, who represented the Desert Ridge area.

The campaign also would include direct mail to residences, fact sheets for members of homeowners associations, briefings for civic and business groups and more fact sheets for members of the village planning commissions involved with the Sumitomo issue. ("[P]ersonal meetings," the memo notes, would be scheduled with "selected members" of the commissions.)

In addition to describing efforts to steer governmental, business, media and citizen response to the Sumitomo plant, the memo makes it clear that those protesting the project should be watched. And the city government would help with the watching.

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