Quarry developer’s PR company may be “astroturfing” Pacifica mailing list
A couple of participants in the Pacifica-L Internet mailing list claiming to be Pacifica residents who support the Pacifica Quarry development appear to be employees of the developer’s public relations firm in Santa Barbara. This has raised serious questions about the degree to which the developer is astroturfing—conducting a fake grassroots campaign.
Beginning August 16, a member calling herself Susan appeared on the list for the first time supporting the project and saying that those who oppose developer R. Donahue Peebles, who is black, are racists: "I like that he is tough and strong and speaks his mind. I like the man and I will not turn away as some of the racist have stated here earlier." Susan’s emails came from a T-Mobile network in Los Angeles and an email server belonging to Davies Communications, Peebles’s Santa Barbara PR firm. One of Davies’s specialities, according to their website, is winning approval of developments:
We overcome neighbor and community fears with scientific persuasion principles that cement commitments from supporters to take action. Our proven process—the Entitlement Accelerator—engineers positive perceptions for projects in the toughest environments, including brownfields and other controversial sites. At DAVIES, we say opposition is never insurmountable—our 95% winning track record speaks for itself.
The next day, a new Peebles supporter calling himself Jimmy appeared on the list. Although Jimmy used the same Hotmail return address as Susan, his emails came from an entirely different network: an internet service provider that doesn’t serve Pacifica. The group tumbled pretty quickly to the fact that Susan and Jimmy were not who they claimed to be and the evidence was posted on the list.
Jimmy took the offensive, noting that one of his accusers—a resident of Montara—lives in, um, Montana. This compounded the impression that Jimmy and Susan were unlikely to be residents of Pacifica.
I spoke to John Davies, the eponymous CEO of Davies Communications, to get his side of the story. Davies said that the firm had conducted an investigation and that there was no way to determine whether anyone inside the firm had posted the emails. He told me he thought the Pacifica list readers were mostly negative thinkers with too much time on their hands.
I asked him if it would be an ethical violation if someone at his firm had done this and he replied, "I don’t know what the ethical standards of a chat room are." After I pressed him on whether it violate his professional ethical standards, he acknowledged that the behavior was inappropriate, but wouldn’t suggest a penalty if Jimmy and Susan turned out to be one or more of his employees.