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Goliath hits back -- with a 'poll'

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


Let's get this straight.

The little town of Belleair in Pinellas County is standing up to giant Florida Power Co.

The town is exploring whether to break away and form its own utility. So might a few others, including Dunedin.

Now, as it so happens, Florida Power is conducting telephone surveys in Belleair, Dunedin and such places.

The company's survey includes questions to the voters about their local leaders' competence and ethics.

And -- here is the toughest part of the story -- this is not any kind of intimidation or tactic by the company.

It is not an attempt to influence the voters, or plant any ideas in their heads.

It is not an attempt to make local elected officials feel any pressure.

It is only "market research."

Market research!

We have to take the word of Florida Power on this point, however. We have to take the company's word because Florida Power has repeatedly refused, and refused again on Tuesday, to disclose what questions it asked.

Even the precise wording of those questions is part of the valuable "market research," you see. It is a super-duper trade secret. It is "proprietary."

If the words got out, who knows what damage might occur? The very voltage in our wires might drop! The coal might not burn as well!

Our reporter Deborah O'Neil found that over several days, selected residents of Belleair, Dunedin and other Florida cities received calls. Following standard polling practice, the questioners did not identify who they worked for.

According to people who got the calls, the questions also dealt with the credibility of Florida Power and, interestingly enough, the credibility of the St. Petersburg Times.

This is just the latest. On March 6, one week before the town elections, Florida Power sent out an extraordinary "Dear Friend" letter to Belleair residents. A pro-company candidate, Bob Rogers, was on the ballot for the Town Commission. The company did not mention Rogers by name, but it issued a dire warning to voters:

"You need to ask yourself: Will citizens suffer from the decision made by local government leaders that may result in higher taxes and fewer services?"

Rogers finished a distant third.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Gail Simpson, who is Florida Power's director of policy, and John Strickling, the company's manager of communications. Strickling began by repeating I wasn't getting the questions: "We can't do market research and give it away." He told me the survey was NOT conducted with customers' money, but with the company's "below the line" profits that belong to stockholders.

Simpson was emphatic that the survey was legitimate research, not an attempt to plant ideas anonymously. "When we want to talk to our customers, we talk to them directly," she said.

They did reveal the identify of the pollster: Schroth & Associates of Washington, D.C., a respected national firm. Pollster Rob Schroth has worked for everybody from presidential candidates on down, and for corporations ranging from Microsoft to -- guess who? -- this newspaper. (Schroth did the Times poll this year on the attitudes of African-American voters.)

Schroth repeated to me that he couldn't reveal the exact questions. But in general, he said: "The survey you referred to was as fair, balanced and objective a survey as I've ever conducted." A good poll presents all sides of an issue, he said.

That's fair enough. However, commissioning even a "fair, balanced and objective" poll has sinister connotations when you are a monopoly electric utility in a battle with local elected officials, and you start calling voters at home to ask "market research" questions about those officials' ethics and competence.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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