What’s Upstream Ad Campaign — What We Know So Far

What’s Upstream ad campaign: What we know so farWhats Up Stream billboard

by Don Jenkins and Alan Kenaga/Capital Press Source: Capital Press research

Dec. 28, 2010 – EPA awards six-year, $18 million grant to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for projects in the Puget Sound region. The Swinomish Indian tribe receives a portion of the money.

April 24, 2012 – Swinomish tribe environmental policy director Larry Wasserman reports to the EPA Puget Sound intergovernmental coordinator that a consultant (Seattle PR firm Strategies 360) had been hired.

July 8-11, 2012 – Strategies 360 survey finds voters satisfied with water quality; environmental issues are the least of their concerns. However, a Strategies 360 memo to Wasserman describes voter opinions as “malleable.”

Oct. 25, 2012 – EPA assigns new “sub-tasks” to tribe which include another statewide survey, newspaper ads, social media, so-called earned media and “creative” advertisements.

April 30, 2013 – Wasserman foreshadows focus of What’s Upstream. “Regionally targeted messaging to raise awareness of non-point source pollution problems and potential solutions will be delayed until December …”

Oct. 24, 2013 – What’s Upstream, an online ad program to drive web traffic, is launched.

March 20-23, 2014 – Another Strategies 360 survey finds farmers and ranchers are popular, but most voters also say they support mandatory 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.

July 15, 2014 – Inspector General for the EPA releases an audit of Puget Sound grants which states EPA “… should improve oversight of subaward monitoring policies and activities.” The EPA’s Northwest office disputes the critical audit.

Oct. 24, 2014 – Strategies 360 submits a “What’s Upstream marketing report,” outlining ways the website is being promoted, “… to insert the campaign’s messaging and themes into coverage of water-quality and other environmental issues.”

April 16, 2015 – On a visit to Washington state, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with Swinomish tribal leaders. She then tours the Skagit River with a group that includes the tribe’s chairman, Brian Cladoosby, and Wasserman. The meeting and tour are closed to the press.

April 30, 2015 – After consulting with Strategies 360, Wasserman files a report with the fisheries commission which states, “An increased expenditure of funds will begin in mid-May with a focus on north Puget Sound.”

Sept. 30, 2015 – In another report to fisheries commission, Wasserman states, “Project has been delayed as a result of extensive reviews and engagement by EPA.”

Oct. 30, 2015 – Wasserman reports to fisheries commission: “As a result of extensive review and engagement by EPA, we have been revising the website, and have to (restart) media outreach.”

Dec. 14, 2015 – Government Accountability Office finds EPA misspent federal funds on a “stealth” campaign to promote new Waters of the United States rule via social media platform Thunderclap and select websites. EPA has yet to report to Congress on the matter.

Courtesy of EPA

March 2016 – What’s Upstream ads appear on public buses in Whatcom County in northwestern Washington. Transit officials quickly remove the advertisements.

March 25, 2016 – EPA says it’s neutral on the content of the What’s Upstream website, which includes a “Take Action” link that allows people to send a form letter to state lawmakers urging mandatory 100-foot farm buffers.

March 31, 2016 – Responding to a Capital Press inquiry, EPA acknowledges that What’s Upstream billboards in Olympia and Bellingham should have disclosed EPA’s involvement in campaign.

April 4, 2016 – Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., calls billboards “disturbing” and “malicious.” He and Senate Environment Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., write the inspector general for the EPA, Arthur Elkins, asking for an investigation.

April 5, 2016 – EPA reverses course and says its grants should not have been used for What’s Upstream.

April 12, 2016 – House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, writes EPA Administrator McCarthy requesting records related to its involvement with What’s Upstream.

April 18, 2016 – EPA inspector general Elkins states in a letter to Roberts and Inhofe that his office will investigate three grants awarded to the fisheries commission totaling $20.5 million.

April 19, 2016 – McCarthy tells the Senate Environment Committee that her agency has stopped funding What’s Upstream. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asks McCarthy when her agency became aware of the campaign. Answers McCarthy: “I can’t give you an exact date, but I can assure you that EPA also was distressed about the use of the money and the tone of that campaign.”

Don Jenkins and Alan Kenaga/Capital Press Source: Capital Press research