Solyndra officials kept obsessive watch over their press coverage while still sending glowing progress reports to the Obama administration — even as the solar manufacturer edged closer to going belly-up.
The media-massaging — revealed in emails released Wednesday — was especially frenzied before and after President Barack Obama’s May 23, 2010, trip to Solyndra’s California headquarters as the company sought to tamp down questions about its troubled finances, the U.S. solar industry's ability to compete with China, and unionized workers who had to take a day off without pay during the visit.
Solyndra spokesman David Miller also did his share of glad-handing with the White House aides handling Obama's trip.
"If you tire of the White House life and ever decide you want to move out with your best friends in [California] let me know,” Miller emailed to White House special assistant Johanna Maska the day after the visit. He added that “we could find you a great corporate gig very quickly."
Maska, promoted this April to director of White House press advance, didn't take Miller up on the offer.
House Republicans investigating Solyndra’s recent financial collapse had requested the emails between the White House and the company, which Obama had touted as a success story thanks to a $535 million loan guarantee funded through the 2009 economic stimulus law.
On Wednesday, the White House turned over about 900 pages of emails to the House Energy and Commerce subpanel heading the investigation, and it also released the messages to the news media. Separately, the Energy Department and the Office of Management and Budget have already produced about 35,000 pages of emails and documents for the House after it issued a subpoena earlier this summer.
Many of the newly released emails depict interactions between Solyndra and Obama officials surrounding the president’s visit to the Bay Area.
They also show Solyndra determined to generate positive press while fending off negative articles — not always successfully.
Just before Obama’s visit, for example, Miller emailed Maska requesting access to the event for reporter Todd Woody. The former Fortune correspondent freelances for the New York Times "and will do a great piece," Miller wrote.
But the company might not have been thrilled with all the stories that Woody, based in San Francisco, published in the months after Obama’s speech. Some described Solyndra's gradual collapse, including an October 2010 story that raised questions about whether U.S. solar technology startups could compete against Chinese manufacturers that flourished with state support and government mandates.
Miller also tried to nip any further spreading of a Greenwire story published on July 6, 2010, with the headline: "Did solar startup's financial crunch catch the White House napping?"
Miller's take on the story: "It's total crap (my subtle professional opinion) and I wanted you to be aware we are working on a response and working to intercept it so it doesn't get picked up by NY Times if we can, and have a plan to mitigate if it does," he wrote to Maska, Gregory Nelson of the White House's Office of Public Engagement, and Daniella Leger, director of message events.
But the story did make it onto the Times's website under an agreement that the newspaper has with Greenwire's parent company, E&E Publishing.
Before the visit, Miller also fretted over local media questioning about why hundreds of employees would be off the clock and unpaid when the president was visiting the factory.
Miller explained in emails to the White House that the company had prepared a statement saying it had been moving 24/7 since its September 2009 groundbreaking, including overtime. While construction was going to be put on hold during the president's visit, it would start right back up after he left. Employees did not lose a day of pay, but “rather the day will be made up down the road,” the statement said.
The next day, Miller wrote to Maska: "The coverage is fantastic this morning (other than the stupid no pay thing which we're making go away).”
Other Solyndra officials were keeping a close watch over the company's image too.
On Oct. 30, 2009, Kelly Truman, then Solyndra's vice president of marketing and business development, asked for an edit in a White House-produced video documentary that featured the company's growth as evidence of success via the economic stimulus law.
"This is a very nice piece," Truman wrote White House spokesman Jim Gilio. "Please note that we had been given a commitment by you and the videographer that we would get to review our video segment before it was posted, but unfortunately this did not happen. There is one snippet we would not show (the vacuum cleaning of the part)."
The White House replied that it would remove the segment from the final cut.
More recently, the Glover Park Group's Ryan Cunningham, contracted to do outside public relations for Solyndra, sent the White House communications team an email in August 2011 with suggested talking points in response to a National Review “Planet Gore” blog item calling for an investigation of DOE and Solyndra.
"It's a fairly disjointed piece, but we wanted to flag it as it may generate buzz among conservatives," Cunningham wrote.
Miller also was back in touch with the White House this spring at the same time the company was showing clear signs it would buckle.
In May 2011, he notified Nelson that Washington Post reporter Joe Stephens "has been poking at us for several months regarding the DOE investigation and various other issues."
"He seems to be focused on whether one of our investors used influence to get us the presidential visit and beyond that influenced the DOE in any way," Miller wrote. "This is not true and we have repeatedly told him that is not the case."
One of Solyndra's primary investors is George Kaiser, a bundler who raised $50,000 for Obama’s campaign in 2008. Kaiser visited the White House at least 16 times, but he has told reporters that he didn't lobby the administration on Solyndra.
"On a brighter note, things are going well at Solyndra," Miller added. "We have good market momentum, the factory is ramping and our plan puts [the company] at cash positive later this year. Hopefully we'll have a great story to tell toward the end of the year."
Miller had another upbeat message a month later when he contacted Bradley Becnel, an Obama special assistant and advance lead, requesting help organizing a White House tour for his daughter's eighth-grade class.
"You may remember me from Solyndra, hopefully positively, some of the resulting press went sideways but overall I think it was a great visit, awesome photos with the contractors we put to work, and we look forward to proving our critics wrong and making it a great visit to look back on," Miller wrote.
Alex Guillen, Bob King and Dan Berman contributed to this report.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 6:26 a.m. on September 15, 2011.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.