Company sued over Flint’s water crisis wages digital PR war during trial

Alfaro Recoba

The engineering firm originally hired by Flint to evaluate the city’s troubled water system ramped up a digital advertising campaign to push its messaging in late 2021 ahead of jury selection in a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit over the firm’s culpability in Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water crisis.

Veolia North America’s advertising has sparked criticism from the plaintiffs’ attorney and raised concerns with legal and digital marketing experts who question whether the timing of the digital advertising targeted the prospective jury pool or the judge, or if it otherwise sought to influence the outcome of the trial from beyond the courthouse walls — accusations the company rejects. 

Although experts have expressed serious concerns about the practice, they add it might be protected by the First Amendment.

The ad blitz kicked off last fall after a trial date was set by a federal judge, with the number of keyword ads increasing steadily from September 2021 to July, according to publicly available data from third-party analytics sites reviewed by The Detroit News. The third-party analytics revealed Veolia more than tripled the number of keyword search terms on Google, where advertisements for its website, VeoliaFlintFacts.com, appeared during that time.

Throughout the civil trial, Veolia’s digital ads with such headlines as “Veolia wrongly blamed” and “Veolia offered Flint help” appeared on computers and mobile phones nationally, including in Ann Arbor and other areas of southeast Michigan where the jury pool was selected.

“Not only did Veolia play a significant role in poisoning a community, but they’ve now put my clients, as well as honest witnesses, a federal judge and the legal system as a whole at the center of a well-orchestrated corporate disinformation campaign,” said Corey Stern, an attorney at the New York law firm Levy Konigsberg.

“… And if a single juror was affected by Veolia’s insidious efforts, then we ought to light the Constitution on fire and start holding our trials in Moscow.”

During the trial, Veolia’s paid search engine-generated ads at times appeared multiple times on a Google search result page that could be viewed at the federal courthouse in Ann Arbor, where lawyers for the company and engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) were staving off a jury verdict finding liability inside.

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