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LEGAL ISSUES

Update: AstroTurf's PR Nightmare

How the company that bought the AstroTurf name dealt with allegations that older fields contained worrisome levels of lead.

Mark Hartman

TURF CONTROL: Prichett met AstroTurf's critics head on.

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The Problem

In our September 2008 issue, we told you about GeneralSports Venue, a bit player in the artificial-turf industry until it bought the rights to use the AstroTurf name. GSV rebranded its product line and launched a media blitz to trumpet the return of the storied synthetic grass. Sales soared 67 percent to $25 million. But with the AstroTurf name came a PR disaster. In 2007, New Jersey health officials tested aging AstroTurf fields and discovered lead levels up to 10 times more than what they considered safe. A media firestorm ensued. GSV went on the offensive, defending the safety of AstroTurf and refuting the state's findings at a well-publicized press conference.

What the Experts Said

Terry Hemeyer, senior counsel at Houston-based Pierpont Communications, thought GSV was right to defend its product but advised the company to differentiate AstroTurf by adding a qualifier along the lines of AstroTurf Prime or AstroTurf Pure. Sydney Fisher Bernier, a former spokeswoman for Odwalla, thought GSV should brace itself for a long fight, given that any press would undoubtedly mention the lead scare. John Ellett, CEO of the Austin-based marketing agency nFusion Group, said GSV's PR campaign should have relied more on Web-based techniques to stem the flow of negative information about AstroTurf.

What's Happened Since

In July 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that both the older and newer versions of AstroTurf were safe. Nonetheless, the California attorney general later filed a lawsuit, claiming that contemporary AstroTurf does indeed contain excessive levels of lead. In July 2009, GSV combined forces with the manufacturer of AstroTurf, the company that had originally leased GSV the brand. GSV's CEO, Jon Pritchett, has since left the company, and GSV's owner, Michael Dennis, serves on the board of the new company,

What's Next

The new owners reached a settlement with the state of California to pay $170,000 in fines and to reformulate their turf by eliminating any intentionally added lead. The new product is in compliance with California's lead standards, the most stringent in the country.




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