Santa Barbara based Matrix Oil proposed to drill 50 oil wells on a small part of the Puente Hills Landfill Habitat Preserve in the City of Whittier. The 1290 acre preserve was originally an oil field owned and operated by Chevron and Unocal. Over 500 oil wells operated for about 100 years until the land was abandoned in the early 1990’s. Because of the dramatic increase in oil prices and the efficiencies that new drilling techniques employed, it was now possible to revive the oil field and about 20 million barrels of oil were expected to be produced over a 25 year period. The City of Whittier negotiated a lease with Matrix with a substantial payment of royalties – enough to cure the City’s budget problems for years to come.
EKA was retained by Matrix to educate the community about the benefits of the arrangement and to educate the public about the minimal impact of the project on the nature preserve and surrounding communities.
Following a series of focus groups with residents, a public opinion survey was conducted that found that the more Whittier voters knew about the project, the more in favor of it they were. The research also showed that voters living more than 2 miles away from the project were substantially stronger in their support than those voters who lived nearby, with a majority of residents favoring the revenue the project could bring to the city.
It was important that we define the project before the well-organized opponents of the project reached a critical mass in their communications efforts. The Whittier Daily News was the principle source of information in the City and the reporter covering the issue often got facts wrong and showed bias against the project.
Fortunately, we had the time and resources to communicate directly to Whittier residents.
Our communications program consisted of the following elements:
Targeted videos, including a 7 minute video that combined facts about the project, images from the site and interviews with community leaders. We told the history of the site since most people in the City did not know that this land was not a natural habitat but a closed oil field. A second video served to debunk false claims made by project opponents regarding sound issues, using technical experts and computer-generated graphics to dispel the lies in a video that the opponents produced and disseminated.
A telephonic outreach program with highly trained callers that resulted in the placement of more than 1,000 signs on household lawns throughout the City.
The signs read:
Our Family Supports Whittier’s Future.
A direct mail program that highlighted the features and benefits of the project
Newspaper ads that corresponded to the messages in the mail program
Television commercials on local cable
Extensive website, social media and email progam to reach thousands of Whittier residents
Participation in community forums
Through our program we were able to find local spokespeople who agreed to sign letters to the editor and who also agreed to comment at the public hearings of the Planning Commission and the City Council.
The Planning Commission hearings were scheduled to occur over three nights in the ballroom of a local hotel because it was expected that the City Council chambers would not hold all of the interested parties. Our goal was to have one speaker for every two in opposition. We exceeded our goal by having only 25% fewer speakers than the opponents at the hearings. By the time of the third night, the opponents of the project were growing dispirited.
The Planning Commission voted 5-0 for the project.
The City Council hearings a few weeks later were essentially a replay of the Planning Commission, with hearings stretching on for 6 nights. Once again we had only about 25% fewer speakers than the opponents.
The City Council voted 5-0 for the project.
Our program not only increased citizen awareness of the project, but it provided the appointed and elected officials with the “political cover” they needed to make the right decision.
Proof of the effectiveness of our program occurred at the City Council election a few months after the vote. All three of the incumbent Councilmembers were re-elected by substantial majorities despite leaders of the anti-oil coalition running against them.