In a radical departure from past El Toro marketing practices, a PR firm operating under a $3 million county contract will be distributing pro-airport refrigerator magnets as part of its effort to chip away at the massive public disapproval of the county's efforts to turn the former Marine Corps base into an international airport.

The magnet is a white rectangle about one inch by two inches, with the words EL TORO printed across the top in thin green type. Below that are the words "Just the Facts," with "Just" and "Facts" in bold blue type and "the" in understated green. At the bottom is a blue stripe bearing the new website address www.eltorofacts.com.

Prototypes of the magnet were given to every reporter attending a July 18 press conference held at the now-desolate El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The magnet is the centerpiece of the county's new pro-airport "public information program," conducted by the PR firm Amies Communications. The campaign name "Just the Facts" is supposed to suggest a kind of Bill O'Reilly meets Sergeant Joe Friday approach to airport planning; in reality, it implies a recognition that most people have dismissed the county's previous efforts as mere propaganda.

Other than the magnet, the campaign is identical to the old county El Toro PR campaign from three years ago. That effort used taxpayers' money to sponsor a speakers bureau, community open houses, information kiosks, newsletters and a website—all of which are part of the new PR effort as well.

The new magnet generated high emotions at the press conference.

"I feel a lot of energy here," said chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors Cynthia Coad, who made a short speech introducing the campaign. "This will be a spectacular source of information. This is really going to be an exciting time."

Indeed, a press release handed out shortly after the press conference repeated this theme of excitement. "We are excited about the opportunity to meet residents and businesses," said Gary Simon in the release.

Jessica Spaulding, an Amies Communications vice president, felt the energy, too. After describing the firm's new information booth at the Orange County Fair as a way for "people to see that we do want to communicate with them," Spaulding described the new website. "What we're really excited about is that this is such a nimble technology."

In addition to feeling excited, Simon and his new PR crew also felt helpful—tremendously helpful. "In the past 15 months, the city of Irvine and ETRPA have flooded our mailboxes with misinformation," said Simon. "We look to the press as our partners in correcting this. . . . Let us know how we can help you." A few minutes later, Simon conducted a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation, the last slide of which read "Goal: Work With You."

And there was no shortage of friendly PR personnel available to help. Indeed, the reporters-to-flacks ratio seemed an unnerving one-to-one. But then again, Amies—like most big PR firms—understands that most reporters are male. That meant that just three of the 10 flacks present were male—all the rest, including the county's new spokeswoman, were young and attractive females.

About the only things missing from the event were the "facts" supposedly so central to the not-so-new PR effort. Though Fourth District Supervisor Coad asserted, "There's new information that needs to come out," all we really saw was new packaging around an old message: Simon and Amies' flacks repeatedly denounced the South County's own PR effort as "misinformation."

In fact, all the advantages have been with the county from the start. As the federally approved "Local Redevelopment Authority," the county has a real—and perceived—legitimacy that South County cities can't hope to match. The county can tap John Wayne Airport revenues at will, providing a virtually limitless funding source.

The county may not consider its voluminous master plans and environmental impact reports propaganda, but they are the most daunting promotional materials in the fight. Their size and technical nature make them look unassailable. In fact, they are riddled with mischaracterizations of noise and pollution impacts.

To be fair, the reports do contain important facts—like the fact that all four El Toro runways will be completely ripped out and rebuilt following an immense grading operation involving millions of cubic yards of dirt and hundreds of millions of dollars, for instance—but most often they are buried deep beneath an encyclopedia of technical planning language. And there they will stay, if the county's "Just the Facts" public-information program has its way.


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