Charles Koch works at Koch Industries in Wichita. / DAVE WILLIAMS, AP
WASHINGTON - The conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch are waging a public-relations campaign to define their brand and their $115 billion industrial conglomerate in the face of public denunciations from Democrats over their political activism.
In recent weeks, the traditionally publicity-averse family has launched a national television advertising campaign that promotes Koch Industries, the company's Midwestern roots and its 60,000-member U.S. workforce on programs as wide-ranging as ABC's comedy Modern Family and Sunday morning public-affairs shows.
Charles Koch, the company's chairman and CEO, penned a USA TODAY op-ed this week, offering his views on the economy, his second piece in a national newspaper this year. Last month, David Koch sat down for a profile in The Wichita Eagle, the paper that hails from the Kochs' corporate hometown, to tout his philanthropic work in his adopted hometown of New York City.
"If you are not defining yourself, you probably are being defined by someone else," Steve Lombardo, the company's recently installed chief communications and marketing officer, said of the advertising campaign. "It benefits us greatly if people understand what we are and what we do."
Lombardo declined to disclose how much the group will spend on its advertising, but he said the television ads will run through 2015. "We see this as a multi-year effort."
The publicity push comes as several Koch-backed groups engage in a bitter fight for control of the U.S. Senate. A key arm of their political network, Americans for Prosperity, signaled it could spend $125 million this year as it hammers vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to seize the chamber in November's elections.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democrats are fighting hard to make the Kochs and their company - which produces everything from fertilizers to Brawny paper towels - a big part of the narrative before November's elections. In broadsides from the Senate floor, Reid has labeled them "power-drunk billionaires" who are "trying to buy the country."
Lombardo said the campaign to promote Koch Industries has been in the planning stages for 18 months and is not intended to address any political backlash. Future spots may highlight individual employees.
"This effort started well before Harry Reid started to attack us on the floor of the Senate every day," he said.
Democrats around the country hit the Koch theme on the airwaves. Democratic-sponsored anti-Koch ads have run in eight Senate races and three House contests in this cycle, said Elizabeth Wilner, a top executive at Kantar Media Intelligence/CMAG who has tracked the Koch-related ads.
"We've never seen a concerted ad campaign that demonizes two individuals who themselves are not politicians," she said. Wilner said the company is "trying to get out in front of the possibility that someone says, 'I can't buy Brawny or Dixie cups anymore' " because of the Koch brothers' politics.
In some circles, that's happening.
The DailyKos and other liberal groups posted detailed lists of Koch consumer products to avoid and have urged consumers to download a "Buycott" app that will allow them to use their smartphone to scan products they find on retail shelves and determine which company owns them.
Last month, members of the liberal organization MoveOn.org organized 700 house parties to watch Koch Brothers Exposed, a documentary critical of the conservatives' political activity. A MoveOn.org petition denouncing the billionaires has drawn more than 248,000 signatures.
Even the Kochs' philanthropy has caused waves. Last month, a large public-sector union severed ties with the United Negro College Fund after the group accepted $25 million from Charles Koch's foundation and his company to help pay for scholarships and help fund the operation of historically black colleges and universities. Lombardo said it was "sad" that the union "would put politics ahead of helping disadvantaged kids."
Lombardo said he's not aware of any drop in business as a result of the liberal push.
Koch Industries, the nation's second-largest privately held company behind agricultural giant Cargill, doesn't make its balance sheet public. An outgrowth of the oil-refining business run by their father, Fred, Koch Industries has diverse business interests. It operates oil refineries and cattle ranches and makes chemicals and industrial products, such as asphalt. It owns the forest products company Georgia Pacific, whose brands include several well-known household products, such as Quilted Northern toilet paper and Brawny.
Huge swaths of the company, such as its oil pipeline operations, service other businesses, rather than sell products directly to consumers. That limits its exposure to boycott campaigns, experts say.
"They are not as consumer-facing as Procter & Gamble or a Coca-Cola or Nestle," said Gene Grabowski, a senior strategist and expert on crisis communication at Levick. "People know the Brawny brand; they don't know the Koch brand."
In fact, a George Washington University Battleground poll conducted in March found that 52% of likely voters had never heard of the Kochs.
The Kochs still have the opportunity to define themselves for most Americans, Grabowski said. "In some ways, Harry Reid did them a favor because he woke them up."
"For so long, the Koch brothers' and Koch Industries' silence has allowed their adversaries to shape their image," he said. "It's almost as if the family has no choice but to join the conversation about who they are."
Read the original story: Denounced by liberals, Kochs defend corporate brand