A Tale of Two Companies

There are plenty of battlefields among U.S. corporations with banks, car companies and offshore oil drilling consulting firms in mind. But few come closer to home than than embattled coal firm Massey Energy and tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, both based in Richmond.

Massey owns the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia where an explosion on April 5 killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Massey is infamous for its safety record, its huge safety and environmental fines and its reputation for mountaintop removal in which entire tops of the Appalachians are chopped off completely to get at thin seams of high grade coal, much of it for Asian steel markets.
What makes Massey distinctive is its decades-long anti-union stances and the tough-guy attitudes of its CEO, Don Blankenship, who has no problem confronting whom he calls “greeniacs” (like Al Gore) while pumping in millions in campaign contributions to West Virginia politicians and judges and vacationing in Monaco with the chief justice of the Mountain State.
Tuesday was no different when Massey held its annual meeting at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond. That’s the spiffied up old matron that used to have the alligators in the lobby pool and whose staircase was supposed to be the model for Tara in ‘Gone With the Wind.”
The mood Tuesday was definitely not moonlight and magnolia. Outside, several hundred protesters including students and members of the United Mine Workers of America chanted and waved signs proclaiming “52 Miners Dead in 10 Years.” Inside the cavernous hotel lobby, several dozen hotel security people plus police officers, some with big bundles of plastic for handcuffs stuffed in their cargo pants, stood at key spots. For more details see my Style Weekly online piece.

We reporters were herded into a big room with a coffee urn where the meeting was piped in to us. I wandered off to the real meeting and was told at a desk by a woman in a black dress to get lost and no, I couldn’t have an annual report. When I asked for names and started writing things down, some employees covered up their name tags. I left under police escort.

Back in the Empire Room, Blankenship’s voice was piped in. The families of the dead miners are being well provided for. Massey’s chief mission is safety. Environmental violations are down 22 percent. Coal revenue was $2.3 billion in 2009, not as good as $2.5 billion in 2008, but there was a recession.

Then came question and answer with the shareholders. At that point they cut off the feed to the journalists. Outside the miners and student demonstrators cheered each time a car passed by an blinked its lights.

It’s a curious way to handle public relations.

But then consider Philip Morris USA and its parent Altria. They will hold their annual meeting Thursday at the downtown convention center in Richmond.

PM USA has been through a gigantic transformation that dated back in the 1990s. At the time Big Tobacco, as now) was awash in health-related lawsuits and its reputation as the cynical purveyor of cancer-causing products prevailed.

So, PM created something called “Project Sunrise” that promised to remake entirely PM’s political and public relations worldview and, hopefully, the public’s perception of the company. A number of initiatives kicked off, such as having the firm admit on its Website that its products are harmful and that you really shouldn’t use them, that the FDA should regulate tobacco and that the firm shouldn’t use sports and entertainment as advertising vehicles.

It split away Philip Morris International and sent it to Switzerland where it could hawk higher tar and nicotine products to less educated smokers in China and Indonesia with no danger of U.S. lawsuits. If someone were to point this out to PM USA, the answer was “sorry but that’s a separate company.”And, parent firm Altria moved its HQ from hostile New York City to tobacco-friendly Richmond.

So, there you have it. A Tale of Two Companies. Which approach is more honest? I’d have to say Blankenship’s and risk UMWA wrath. Massey badly needs a makeover both in terms of its safety and strip mining policies and pr. But at least Blankenship has the guts to take it on the chin rather than hide behind some secret corporate master plan and doubletalk.

Imagine if Massey touted on its Website: “We mine coal, but it’s dangerous so don’t use it.”

Imagine if PM USA said: “So what if it causes cancer?”

Peter Galuszka

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