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Coal plans massive PR campaign

Published: Friday, January 10, 2003
Page: P6A
Byline: Ken Ward Jr. West Virginia coal operators are planning a massive public relations campaign to remake their image and drown out what they say is a small number of vocal critics.

During the West Virginia Coal Association's annual symposium Thursday in Charleston, coal operators hear a report on the project from Charles Ryan, the publicist hired by the new pro-industry group, "Friends of Coal." "Never has there been a greater opportunity than now to tell coal's story," Ryan told the association members. "We have to have an ongoing program, and it has to have real depth." Ryan said that he proposed a five-year program that would include focus groups and public opinion surveys to help develop television, radio and newspaper ads.

Industry officials did not say how much they planned to spend on the program, but were optimistic about its potential.

"We're going to move fast, and we're going to move aggressively," said Coal Association President Bill Raney.

During Thursday's meeting, coal operators also heard from the effort's chief public spokesman, former West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen.

Nehlen told the group about several visits he has made to mine sites to tour operations and meet with workers.

"I liked the look in their eyes," Nehlen said. "I liked their passion for their work. They were just good, old-fashioned Americans to me." Nehlen lavished praise on the industry, and said he's sure that a public-relations campaign will be a major boost.

"The best defense is a good offense," he said.

"We have a special industry here that is absolutely necessary for the state of West Virginia to make it," he said. "You guys are 10 or 11 and 0, and everybody talks like you're 5 and 6.

"When you're winning, we've got to let people know," Nehlen added.

"You guys are special, and we've got to make sure everybody knows it." Ryan said that he hopes to point out and draw upon coal industry tax money that is distributed to school systems and local governments throughout the state, as well as the spin-off economic impact the industry has on other businesses.

"Your tentacles are everywhere in this state," Ryan told the operators. "They reach into every program in this state." Ryan said that he's convinced that it is a failure to tell its story - and not any real problems mining creates - that are the cause of the coal industry's poor image.

"Coal is a good neighbor - socially, environmentally and economically," Ryan said. "We say that because we can back that up.

"You can't do image without substance," he said. "Well, folks, I think the coal industry has substance, and if you tell the story with substance, you will make a difference." At the symposium, which continues today, industry officials were distributing stickers, license plates and hats with a new logo for the "Friends of Coal" group.

Ryan said that this campaign will be broader and more visible that previous pro-coal campaigns by the association or various member companies.

"It's an extractive industry, so you're always going to have some criticism," Ryan said. "Some of the criticism is justified, and when it is, it needs to be addressed.

"The problem is that the critics are small in number, but they have a very big voice.

"Coal is very large, but it has a very small voice," Ryan said.

Nehlen said that he hopes the campaign will help mining companies be able to increase productivity and stop efforts to limit mining.

"Let's get some of these doggone regulations eliminated or at least made sound, so guys can mine coal," Nehlen said. "I don't exactly know the regulations, but I'm smart enough to know that in China, they mine for six bucks a ton, and we have got to be able to compete with them.

"Let's go on the offensive," the retired coach said. "Let's tell the real story about coal." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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