Above: The proposed Newland Sierra housing development would lie north of Deer Springs Rd. and west of I-15 in Escondido. File photo
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include a quote from professor Sharon Beder at University of Wollongong in Australia.
REGION — A firm with a specialty in navigating contested public policy battles has won a major public relations industry award for its work on the Newland Sierra housing proposal.
Owned by Newland Communities, Newland Sierra is a 1,985-acre, over 2,100-home proposal planned just north of San Marcos and west of the Escondido border, just west of Interstate Highway 15.
Despite criticism from residents opposed to building sprawl-style housing which would increase area traffic and potentially put a new legion of residents in the crosshairs of wildfires, the proposal received a 4-0 unanimous vote by the County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 26.
And it is for that vote that the judges for the 2019 Bulldog PR Awards gave Davies Public Affairs, a Santa Barbara-based industry giant best known for its work on crisis communications and grassroots mobilization on real estate and energy industry policy fights, the gold medal for Best Public Affairs Campaign.
Tom Hallman Jr., a senior reporter for The Oregonian and one of the judges, compared the work that Davies did to win over skeptical stakeholders to that of a good journalistic storyteller.
“What I found interesting on this as a journalist was how, in covering a controversial story, that they had to figure out what it was all about,” said Hallman Jr. “And I found what they did from a reporting standpoint, which I’m going to call it, applies to how people in the industry tell a story and how companies try to connect with their constituents or their customers.”
Hallman Jr. added that he was impressed by the extensive interviewing of people on all sides of the issue — or focus group work — that Davies Public Affairs did to inform its publicity efforts.
“I was very impressed with how they dealt with multiple parties, all of whom had competing interests,” Hallman Jr. said. “What I found that made it a winning entry is they turned to those affected, or who would be affected, through this series of interviews.”
Davies Public Affairs was also involved in public relations work for the contentious fight over One Paseo, a mixed-use development owned by Kilroy Realty located just east of Interstate Highway 5 along Carmel Valley-Del Mar border off of Del Mar Heights Road.
One Paseo recently opened for business after a years-long debate.
“We got this elaborate brochure in the mail, and we wondered why they were sending it to us. Something just felt weird about it,” a Carmel Valley resident explained in 2012 in an article published by the San Diego Reader of a Davies Public Affairs mailer that she received. “And then we started seeing these letters printed in the Carmel Valley News in support of the project. I knew this wasn’t grassroots, it just pretended to be.”
According to its awards application shared with The Coast News by Bulldog PR, Davies Public Affairs conducted 45 different hourlong interviews to understand stakeholders’ positions on Newland Sierra.
The firm then crafted a six-month campaign, based on what it learned from those interviews, saying that it believed that made the difference in getting the sought county permit.
That Davies Public Affairs campaign included helping to create a website, disseminating direct mail materials, helping plan community events, doing a phone call campaign and more. Davies Public Affairs has posted one of its informational brochures online, which emphasizes family life and tranquil cohabitation with nature.
In total, Davies Public Affairs said in its application that it reached out to 5,000 households located close to the project proposal, and then an additional 4,000 households countywide, as part of its Newland Sierra outreach.
Bearing the fruits of its labor, it says it gained 1,000 new individuals voicing their support the proposed housing development.
Of those 1,000 supporters, 155 came to a key Sept. 26 San Diego County Board of Supervisors hearing on Newland Sierra, with over 50 of them testifying on the record in front of the board, according to the awards application.
Back in 2006, two Davies Public Affairs staff were traced as writing comments on a message board disguised as grassroots proponents of a housing development set go into a former mining quarry in Pacifica, California.
The firm is perhaps most famous in public relations circles for creation of a flyer featuring four images of the same senior woman holding a “Not In My Backyard” sign.
“Don’t leave your future in her hands,” reads that handout. “Traditional lobbying is no longer enough. Today, numbers count. To win in the hearing room, you must reach out to create grassroots support.”
And beyond area real estate standoffs, Davies Public Affairs has also helped high profile clients such as ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BP, Sprint, Home Depot and others navigate through turbulent policy and regulatory terrain.
Edward Walker, a professor of sociology at University of California-Los Angeles and author of the 2014 book “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy,” said that the work firms like Davies Public Affairs does has become increasingly sought after in rough-and-tumble policy fights.
“Of course, the job of a firm like this is to work behind the scenes to help amplify the preferred message of their client, typically working through third parties and coalitions in order to get their message across,” Walker said. “The work of such firms varies depending on the case, ranging from conventional PR and advertising strategies to facilitating public events to even directly organizing local residents in support of the development project.”
Sharon Beder, the author of the 1997 book “Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism” and Professor Sharon Beder at University of Wollongong in Australia, put it more harshly.
“Public relations firms like Davies are skilled at deceiving people and their political representatives that there is wide public support for their client’s environmentally or socially damaging projects,” said Beder, who has cited Davies Public Affairs in her scholarship.
Davies Public Affairs CEO and founder John Davies said the contract with Newland Sierra has ended but did not specify how much money his firm made from the deal.
Since securing unanimous approval from the County Board of Supervisors, opponents of Newland Sierra gathered 100,000 signatures necessary to put the housing proposal as a referendum vote for the March 2020 ballot.