If you are a Facebook user who expressed an interest in national security issues or who lives in a Gulf Coast state, you may be hearing from the people who want to build a new refueling tanker for the Pentagon.
EADS North America, the aerospace company that is in a fierce public relations battle with the Boeing Co. to win a $35 billion Pentagon contract to build the next generation of aerial tankers, is turning to Facebook and other new media to whip up grass-roots support to help its case in Washington, D.C.
Along with conventional spots on radio and in print, EADS has been buying ads on websites such as Facebook and Google to urge those with an interest in the defense project to contact their lawmakers.
Guy Hicks, an EADS spokesman, said corporations have taken note of how politicians effectively used social media in the past two elections.
“That has spilled over into the private sector,” he said. “This isn’t a transitory fascination. We are seeing a tectonic shift in how we tell our message.”
The social media advertising allows the company to more finely target its advocacy ads to those who indicate on their profiles that they are interested in defense issues or live in places where the tanker is slated to be assembled — particularly Alabama, where the main EADS manufacturing facility would be.
Facebook, which has been criticized by privacy advocates for its use of personal information for marketing purposes, has seen an uptick in advocacy advertising, including during the recent debate over health care.
“When there is a big policy issue, I think people are getting a bit more savvy about reaching the right audience,” a Facebook spokesman said.
EADS and Boeing have ramped up their advertising recently as the decade-long struggle over the tanker reaches another important deadline. On Friday, both sides must deliver to Pentagon officials final revisions to their proposals to build 179 aerial tankers.
While procurement officials are expected to select a contractor in the following weeks or months, many of those involved in the effort are skeptical that the highly political portion of the fight will end anytime soon.
Any decision by the military is likely to be challenged, and lawmakers will remain involved because they must approve the funding for the tankers.
Hicks said EADS wanted to ensure that the public and lawmakers were receiving adequate information and “not simply reacting to polemics.” In particular, the U.S.-based subsidiary of the European Aeronautics Defence and Space Co. wants to dispel allegations by its opponents that much of the project will not be built in this country.
Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said his company also believed it needed to continue advertising because “we want to be sure we are telling our story.”
Beck said Boeing has not advertised on social media sites but, like EADS, maintains its own website for the tanker, which he said has been effective in reaching a broad audience.
“You’d be surprised. We get a lot of hits from across the country,” he said.
A number of Facebook pages have been created over the years by proponents of both sides in the tanker dispute. One page, “Support the Air Force Tanker Decision,” has 734 members and urged people to call their lawmakers to back a 2008 decision by the Pentagon selecting the tanker bid by Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS. Another page, “America for an American Refueling Tanker,” was critical of that decision, which the Pentagon revoked after Boeing filed an appeal.
In recent advertising volleys, the companies have traded charges over the level of government subsidies that they have received. Both cite rulings by the World Trade Organization that EADS received subsidies from European governments and Boeing benefited from U.S. government aid, although at lower amounts than EADS.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Boeing supporter, has introduced legislation requiring defense officials to take into consideration what she called unfair advantages that EADS enjoys from illegal subsidies.
The Washington Democrat has also called into question the integrity of the bidding process because of a mix-up last fall when the Pentagon mistakenly sent information to the two companies that included details about the opposing bids. Pentagon officials determined that an EADS official had the Boeing file open for three minutes while Boeing officials never opened the EADS data.
Both companies maintain substantial lobbying operations, although Boeing outspent EADS last year $17.9 million to
$3 million. Some of EADS’ outside firms are more tailored to reaching Republican lawmakers, particularly Southern ones who are largely backing the company’s plan. Boeing has retained prominent Democratic-leaning firms that may have more influence with the Obama administration.
EADS has hired GOP lobbying firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock and the Livingston Group, headed by ex-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). Virginia Hume, a former press secretary at the Republican National Committee who now works for Quinn Gillespie & Associates, is helping with social media.
Boeing has tapped politically connected firms, including the Podesta Group, founded by Democrat Tony Podesta, and the Gephardt Group, headed by former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.). Last year, Boeing’s political action committee gave $2.8 million in contributions to federal candidates and parties, more than half of it to Democrats. EADS’ PAC made $292,00 in contributions, just more than half to Democrats.
Some on Capitol Hill are not sure whether the latest advertising campaign will make a difference.
Rep. Norm Dicks, ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, has long been one of the most vocal lawmakers advocating on behalf of Boeing, which has major operations in the Seattle area.
But the Washington Democrat’s spokesman, George Behan, said that while he has been aware of the advertising blitz, “there isn’t much we can do.”
“It is difficult for us to take direct action while the procurement is under way,” Behan said.
Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Rep. Jo Bonner, who represents the Mobile, Ala., area where the EADS assembly plant would be located, said the Republican’s office has not been the target of much lobbying on the issue lately. Lewis said part of the reason is that Bonner has made it clear that he backs EADS’ bid.
“We believe the decision is now in the hands of the administration,” he said. “Congress has had its input.”