Pickens Goes For The Grass Roots
Allison Fass, 07.11.08, 4:00 AM ET
"Did you know, back in 1970, we imported 24% of our oil, and by 1990 it was 42%," says billionaire T. Boone Pickens, in his Texas drawl, at the start of a national commercial that began airing this week. "Today, it's almost 70% and climbing every minute." His voice plays as the words appear in white letters on a black screen. A fire slowly burns into the background.
The octogenarian oilman has a message for Americans and the two presidential candidates: Our dependence on imported oil is destroying the country. Pickens is serious about this--he's spending $58 million and a chunk of his personal time to get the word out. "I've been an oilman my entire life," he says, appearing in his first TV commercial, "but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of."
The 60-second spot debuted Tuesday along with a deluge of paid and unpaid national and local media. The goal is to make U.S. dependency on imported oil "the No. 1 political issue in America," says Pickens' spokesman Jay Rosser.
It's an astonishing twist for a longtime Republican and self-made oil mogul, who has received the Horatio Alger Award for overcoming humble beginnings. Wealthy men like Pickens--whose fortune is estimated at $3 billion, ranking him No. 368 on Forbes' billionaires list--typically get their message out to politicians through discreet fund-raising efforts and private meetings. Pickens has done all those including a one-on-one with President George W. Bush.
A quick glance at Web sites that list political donations turns up ample records of support by Pickens and his family members of Republican candidates including Rudolph Giuliani (and in more limited amounts, John McCain), along with donations to the Republican National Committee.
But in what might be an effort to hedge his political bets, Pickens isn't devoting his attention--and millions--to one political candidate. He's taking his message to the streets.
Pickens has assembled a group of public relations and political strategy firms, including one that has historically been knee-deep in Democratic campaigns. Leading the work on Pickens' TV ad, for instance, has been political ad strategy firm Joe Slade White & Co., which worked on the campaigns of Senator Joe Biden, D-Del., and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.
Rosser declines to identify any of the other marketing firms who helped create the Pickens Plan media splash, beyond saying "there are several" from both sides of the political aisle. "There are Democrats and Republicans teaming up together on this."
They don't come cheap. Pickens team has budgeted $44 million for paid media. The other $14 million is for staffing and administrative costs. The dollars come directly from Pickens' own coffers.
Pickens' first commercial aims to alert America to the threat we're facing. It will be followed by another three commercials outlining his solution, which he asserts could reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil in 10 years. Elements include investing in U.S. renewable energy sources, starting with wind and natural gas.
Pickens is a persuasive spokesman for his plan considering he built his fortune on oil. "He's got credibility. He's not someone who might be perceived as a left-leaning, tree-hugging liberal," says William Brent, senior vice president and head of the clean technology practice at the public affairs firm Weber Shandwick. (Weber Shandwick is not working for Pickens.) "Because of that his voice holds more weight, certainly among the conservative set."
Radio spots and print ads featuring Pickens also began Tuesday, as did an extensive public relations effort that plugged Pickens on ABC's Good Morning America and the CBS Evening News, CNN and Fox News. Pickens met this week with the editorial boards of the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek. A Pickens Op-Ed was published in The Wall Street Journal.
The campaign also has an in-depth social networking Web site that allows users to join, post a profile with photos, invite friends and share "ideas and tactics on how to make energy the most important issue in this election." They can also read and watch Pickens' latest Twitter and blog postings (some in video) or link to his profiles on LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook, where the Pickens Plan has accumulated 17,750 members since Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Pickens posted a video thanking viewers for the initial response. He smiled slightly before he mentioned that the first group meeting was held at an Applebee's in Dalton, Ga.
"We have to have an army and you're part of the army. Bring your friends, family, your church group, everybody together that you can think of."
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