Boeing cracks down on insurance agent

Larry Freudenberg said he was aiming for web hits by mentioning Boeing in news releases.

Larry Freudenberg was sitting in his office on Gardner Road in West Ashley a week ago Thursday when the phone rang. He thought it might be a client for his Triest Agency Insurance.

Instead, it was a Boeing spokeswoman. And she did not want to do business with Freudenberg -- in fact, quite the opposite.

The company was concerned that some Triest press releases, which mentioned Boeing's arrival in the Lowcountry and its positive impact on the local economy, implied that Boeing was somehow associated with or endorsed Triest.

After confirming that no one at Boeing had authorized the reference, the communications manager told the insurance agent to take down his promotional pieces.

Freudenberg, whose great-grandfather founded Triest on Broad Street in 1903, was taken aback.

"I was not very happy. I mean, who would be?" he said this week.

Asked about the Triest situation, Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger downplayed her conversation with Freudenberg, saying Boeing representatives make such calls "all the time across the enterprise because people have a tendency to do this."

"One of the things that we try really hard to keep from happening is that somebody would trade on the Boeing name or use it in a way that's not consistent with the way we would want our brand used," she said.

The dispute seems to be resolved. Freudenberg issued a retraction, disclaiming any association with "a large employer that is coming to the Charleston area," and apologizing.

Boeing did not tell Freudenberg to issue the retraction or threaten any legal action. But Freudenberg didn't want any more trouble.

"They've got more lawyers than I could ever have," he said.

Name dropping

The incident raises broader questions about how local companies are allowed to use Boeing's name and how Boeing, which has been almost universally hailed as an economic savior since it chose to build 787 Dreamliner jets in North Charleston, can maintain its pristine standing in the community while also policing its brand.

Charlie Smith, a Charleston real estate broker who has a "Charleston Boeing Relocation" page on his website but has not received a call from the aviation giant, seemed concerned about the message Boeing sent by calling Freudenberg.

He alluded to the tax breaks and other assistance the company received from the state and local governments to build the plant.

"If they want to come into a community and use taxpayer dollars to do it and then not be supportive of a business community that's here to serve the needs of their employees, then what's the point?" Smith said.

"That's an attitude that would create a lot of ill will in the business community here, which is a very small business community."

In response, Eslinger issued a statement emphasizing that Boeing is "proud of the relationships we continue to build with local businesses in South Carolina."

"We're excited about the fact that many ancillary businesses will benefit from the growth of our expanded operations and lots of companies are mentioning Boeing, and that's great," the statement read.

"We just don't want the public to think that because they mention us that Boeing endorses their company or products."

The first Triest press release that mentioned Boeing, a paid placement on prweb.com, was published Sept. 11 and soon proliferated to other sites.

"Charleston is flourishing with the new Boeing Plant in North Charleston. Boeing will increase thousands of new jobs and new family groups in the Charleston Trident Region," the first paragraph read, in part.

After announcing two recent Triest hires and detailing the agency's business, the release concluded: "Triest Agency Insurance is excited to welcome all of the new employees of Boeing that are moving to Charleston and is ready to assist them with their insurance needs.

"Boeing is building the New Dreamliner in North Charleston and because of Boeing's investment in the area, Triest Agency Insurance plans to grow."

Longer versions, which included more details about Boeing's 787 Dreamliner operation, showed up on onlineprnews.com and wiredprnews.com on Sept. 21. Freudenberg said he was aiming for Google hits. "You put keywords in a press release because you want your press release picked up," he said.

Eslinger said Boeing "would've had no issue if he had directed a link to one of the news reports or directed a link back to Boeing where he talked about our company."

Fair use?

On one hand, Freudenberg's Boeing mentions are "a nominative fair use," said Baltimore intellectual property attorney James B. Astrachan.

Astrachan, who has taught advertising law at the University of Maryland School of Law for a dozen years, said a business can use another business' trademark so long "as it's not likely to cause confusion as to affiliation, sponsorship or source."

Astrachan said, "The question is, would these people believe that Boeing sponsors or approves this?"

"And I don't think there's any language in there … that would support that sort of conclusion," he said after reviewing the releases. Freudenberg's use of Boeing's name is "no different than saying tourism brings people here, or The Citadel brings people here."

On the other hand, that Freudenberg was using Boeing's name to attract Google hits "brings the use into question," Astrachan said. "His motives are no longer pure fair use at that point."

Eslinger would not say what differentiates sites like Smith's from the Triest releases, nor would she say if she has made other calls.

"There's different contracts with different suppliers on how they can talk about their association with Boeing," she said.

Boeing citings

Indeed, several other businesses, government and potential suppliers have also cited Boeing recently, apparently without issue.

The first image that visitors to the state Department of Commerce's website see is a Dreamliner jet, for instance. And on Wednesday, the top executive of Carbures USA announced that it would build a composites design and manufacturing facility in Greenville County, in part, because it would position the company to supply Boeing.

Commerce doesn't have a "formal agreement" with Boeing, but it does have "a general understanding" with Eslinger's team, a department spokeswoman said.

Jack Jones, Boeing's South Carolina vice president and general manager, said it's easy to avoid receiving a phone call from the company.

"The best way is to check with these guys," Jones said, gesturing to Eslinger and other members of his communications team. "Just call 'em."

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him at on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.