Late Summer Musicale

We’re taking a little vacation, so I won’t be posting here for about a week. I’m actually hoping, halfway, that the place we’ll be staying doesn’t have Internet access.

In the meantime, let’s pretend you’re at the Hollywood Bowl, or at Tanglewood, under the stars on a warm night…

1. Yehudi Menuhin with Sir Adrian Boult and ??? Orchestra, Beethoven Romance for Violin in F Major

2. Gidon Kremer with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, Brahms Violin Concerto (third movement)

3. Sharon Kam with ??? Orchestra, Mozart Clarinet Concerto (second movement). Unfortunately, it cuts off abruptly, but it’s still worth hearing.

4. John Williams & Julian Bream, Debussy, Clair de Lune, arranged for two guitars.

5. Sergei Nakariakov with Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Arban, Carnival of Venice.

Drive home carefully!

Because Wendy McCaw Needs the Money?

According to the LA Times (h.t. LA Observed), Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, has sued her former editor, Jerry Roberts for $500,000.  The story is a bit undernourished:

The owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press has filed a legal action demanding $500,000 in damages from former editor Jerry Roberts, sources at the newspaper said.

The claim on behalf of Publisher Wendy McCaw’s Ampersand Inc. was filed with an arbitrator, as required in Roberts’ employment contract. It accuses him of breach of contract and causing damage to the News-Press.

This is the same Jerry Roberts who will be in Chicago tomorrow night, accepting the ethics award from the Society of Professional Journalists on behalf of himself and nine other former News-Press staff.  McCaw reportedly tried to stop SPJ from making these awards.

Editor & Publisher this afternoon got Roberts’ reaction to McCaw’s claim:

Roberts responded this afternoon with an e-mail statement that declared, in part, “I categorically deny any wrongdoing alleged in this arbitration demand. I consider this action by the News-Press nothing more than an attempt to silence me and to threaten my family’s financial future in retaliation for speaking out about ethics at the paper.”

The News-Press also issued a statement objecting to the public release of its claim against Roberts, calling the demand for $500,000 part of a “private arbitration process.”

The Santa Barbara News-Press was disturbed that a private arbitration matter involving former employee Jerry Roberts is being discussed publicly. The News-Press has maintained the confidentiality of this proceeding in accordance with the policies of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) guidelines.

The paper suspects that details may have been leaked by Mr. Roberts or his representatives since the News-Press did not make any public disclosures about the case. It is unfortunate that the privacy of these hearings has not been upheld.

Mr. Roberts signed an employment agreement with the News-Press which included a provision that both parties would submit to binding arbitration in the event of any disputes evolving from Mr. Roberts’ employment or resignation.

As a private adjudication proceeding, the rules of the AAA are very clear. Unless the parties agree otherwise, confidentiality of the arbitration must be safeguarded by the arbitrator, the parties and their representatives. All proceedings and awards are private and confidential and releasing confidential information can undermine the arbitration process.

The Santa Barbara News-Press is fully committed to the AAA dispute resolution process to settle employment-related issues in a private, confidential manner and without extensive litigation. The paper respects the confidential nature of the arbitration and will have no further comment on this proceeding or the outcome.

I know, it’s PR 101.  Whatever your position is, make it seem like the high road, like you’re upholding a value everyone shares — in this case the, harrumph, “the AAA dispute resolution process.”  But, jeez, when the recipient of the third largest divorce settlement in the history of the world tries to shake down a working editor for half a million dollars, that’s hot stuff she should expect to see in the paper.  If the publicity is disturbing, then back off.  The demand is plainly unjust — and has a snowball’s chance.

Thank You, Del Biagi, Wherever You Are

If you are an environmentally-minded kind of person, this is a thrilling story, and an unbelievable accomplishment.

State officials announced Thursday that California has finally achieved its goal of reducing landfill waste by 50%, thanks to diligent recycling by residents and businesses.

The milestone culminates a 16-year campaign by the state to persuade people to separate recyclables out of the trash.
The state passed a landmark law in 1989 mandating that communities establish waste-management plans for residents and businesses that would ultimately divert at least 50% of all recyclable trash from landfills. California was supposed to reach the goal in 2000, but preliminary data released Thursday show that the goal wasn’t reached until last year.

A total of 88 million tons of solid waste was recycled in 2005 for a 52% recycling rate, said Jon Myers, a spokesman for the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board. In 2004, 76 million tons were recycled, or 48%.

Though some cities still lag behind, other communities that are now diverting 60% or more of their waste to recycling centers made up the difference.

tom-bradley.jpgThat 1989 law would never have passed unless, a year earlier, my boss, the late Mayor Tom Bradley hadn’t publicly commmited the City of Los Angeles to recycling (or “beneficially reusing”) at least 50 percent of its trash. And Mayor Bradley wouldn’t have had the nerve to make what seemed like an outrageously ambitious commitment if his Bureau of Sanitation director Del Biagi hadn’t said to me, and then later to the mayor, “What the hell, why don’t we just tell everybody we’re going to recycle half our trash?”

Up til then, Biagi had been a reluctant supporter of recycling. A few short months before these conversations started, Biagi was still trying to talk me out of telling the mayor he should abandon the trash-burning LANCER project. Biagi was running a small pilot recycling program on the Westside. To appease me, he said he’d be willing to expand it. “Into every council district?” I asked, since I knew none of them wanted to be left out. “Grrr,” said Biagi. We used to have these bantering conversations in the awful food court in City Hall Mall, eating baked potato and salad from Leon’s.

I wish I could take the credit for talking Biagi into his new position, but I think it was his staff — the sharpest bunch of garbagemen you’ll ever meet. Or maybe it was Biagi’s refined sense of which way the political winds were blowing. Biagi was, to me, the quintessential city department manager in Los Angeles — a Zen surfer on shifting currents. In real life, he was a surfer, and I think he found peace in imagining himself shooting the curl whenever a councilmember was berating him in public, which happened frequently.

Whatever happened, over yet another baked potato, Biagi pulled the 50 percent rabbit out of his hat. Within a few weeks, Bradley and several members of the Council announced the goal. It led to the development of a citywide curbside recycling program to be phased in over, I think, about seven years. When it was done, it was the largest municipal curbside recycling program in the country, and due to LA’s size, it probably still is.

I don’t know if the state of California would’ve had the courage to propose such an ambitious goal if the biggest city in the state hadn’t gone first. And I don’t think I would have had the balls to tell Mayor Bradley to announce a 50 percent goal if Biagi hadn’t sprung it on me first. It was like Babe Ruth calling his home run in the 1932 World Series. The chances of failure were a lot higher than the chances of success, but Biagi knew his team could make it happen.

So if you are into recycling and are happy that California’s stopped filling canyons with our trash, tip your post-consumer chapeau in the direction of Del Biagi, the reluctant environmentalist, now retired, and hopefully enjoying some tasty waves in a secluded cove somewhere off of Orange County.

(Meanwhile, after my vacation, I’ll try to find out the fate of Councilman Greig Smith’s pledge to divert 100 percent of our waste and his new ideas on trash-burning, which I wrote about here.)

Update on Swag Bags and the IRS

bag.jpgRandi Schmelzer’s piece in PR Week (link for subscribers) on the IRS’ position that “swag bags” are taxable straightens out some of my own confusion in the previous post on this topic. The IRS has determined that the swag baskets are not gifts, and that is why they will be taxed from now on. From Schmelzer’s story:

If any organization is truly benefiting from this news, however, it’s the IRS. Focusing on both recipient reporting and the filing of Form 1099 by merchandise providers, the IRS’ outreach program includes letters to entertainment industry groups and tax professionals, an online FAQ, and plenty of media relations, according to Nancy Mathis, a DC-based public affairs specialist at the IRS.

“Any individual’s requirement is to pay tax on income,” she said. “You are not required to pay taxes on gifts, [but] our position is that these… are items given with the expectation of something in return, that use by a celebrity will enhance sales, and the products themselves serve as compensation.”

Okay, I’m a celebrity, and I get a gift basket that has some items in it I wouldn’t be caught dead using. Can I return them so I won’t have to pay taxes on them? And, if am given an item I don’t want, can I avoid taxes by declaring that I un-endorse it? “Hi, I’m a celebrity, and for the record, I never wear Axe body spray. The gallon of Axe body spray I was given in a swag bag went straight down the kitchen sink.”

Schmelzer’s piece includes quotes from PR firms whose business is focused heavily on filling these bags with swag:

Everyone is talking about it,” said Kari Feinstein, whose eponymous PR firm organizes brand, charity, and Young Hollywood-melding “style lounges.” “Even the guy at the car wash asked me about it.”

General consensus among celebrity gift-oriented firms is that while there is reason to proceed with caution, the demise of swag may be greatly exaggerated.

Feinstein said brands want to be in touch with stars, and vice versa. “That [won’t] stop,” she added. “It’s too beneficial.”

“The whole intersection between Hollywood Boulevard and Madison Avenue isn’t going away,” added Lash Fary, founder of LA-based entertainment marketing firm Distinctive Assets. “It’s too important to the brands I work with.”

It might be important to the brands, but the key question is: Is it important enough to the celebrities to go through the hassle and expense of taking these products home? Celebrities are smart enough to understand that they help sell the products, but if you make it hard for them, why would they bother?

The art of real-life product placement is that you slip these products into celebrity hands stealthily, and then make sure someone else sees it, hears about it and photographs it. The celeb is working for you, and it’s only costing you the wholesale price of the item you gave them. If it’s costing the celebrity? Seems like that changes the dynamic, and puts us back in the world of paid endorsement contracts. But maybe the PR pros who specialize in this business are more creative than me.

The Snark Effect Claims Tom Cruise

tom-oprah.jpgTom Cruise’s production deal with Paramount was terminated with extreme prejudice by Sumner Redstone yesterday. He didn’t just end the relationship. Redstone bombed it by saying things like this:

The latest high-profile Hollywood breakup is between Tom Cruise and his studio. Sumner Redstone, whose company owns Paramount Pictures, said the studio would sever its 14-year relationship with Cruise’s film production company because “his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”

“As much as we like him personally,” the Viacom Inc. chairman told The Wall Street Journal, “we thought it was wrong to renew his deal.”

(snip)

In the past year or so, the usually guarded actor came under intense scrutiny after he jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch while proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes, openly advocated Scientology, and criticized Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs to treat postpartum depression. The religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard opposes psychiatry and its medication.

Redstone estimated that Cruise’s off-screen behavior cost his latest movie, “Mission: Impossible III,” $100 million to $150 million in ticket sales, even as he praised the film as “the best of the three movies” in the action series.

It’s nothing to do with his acting ability, he’s a terrific actor,” Redstone said. “But we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”

In assessing this development, the New York Times’ reporters said this:

While Paramount’s decision was a shock to the Hollywood status quo, the way in which it was revealed was another sign that movie studios are playing rougher with stars they once coddled, one senior movie studio executive said.

Most recently, ABC canceled a production deal with Mel Gibson’s company for a mini-series about the Holocaust after he made anti-Semitic statements while detained for drunk driving. And the head of Morgan Creek Productions wrote a scathing letter scolding the actress Lindsay Lohan for unruly behavior during a movie shoot; the letter was quickly leaked to the news media.

lohan.jpg“I think the press has become the weapon of choice for these people,” said the studio executive. “These companies are sick of being pushed around. This is indicative of a huge paradigm shift in the industry in terms of what constitutes a star and how much power a star has.”

My guess is, the Hollywood suits have wanted to pull the plug on unruly stars since the days of Charlie Chaplin. So what’s different now?

PR programs at major universities will study this endlessly. But my answer is one word: SNARK.

For decades, the gossip columns and later the tabloids hounded stars, sometimes peddling blatantly false stories to protect them from public condemnation, sometimes keeping them in line with threats, sometimes taking bribes, effectively, to hush things up. But there was a limit. The gossip media and the studios were really in business together, the business of celebrity mythology. They all made money by supporting the myth that movie and TV stars were living a glamorous, sexy, affluent, elevated life to which most of us aspired. The gossip-mongers and the star-makers sometimes had skirmishes, but usually stopped short of doing anything that would cost anyone serious money.

Now the gossip industry has grown an offshoot, the snark industry. Snarky means “irritable or ‘snidely derisive,'” according to Wikipedia; “a witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism,” according to Urban Dictionary. But in this context, the derisive attitude is always aimed at celebrities and the powerful.

Right now, many of the most popular blogs are pure snarkiness; sites like Gawker (media snark), Wonkette (political snark), Defamer (Hollywood snark), Deadspin (sports snark), Valleywag (tech snark), The Smoking Gun (snarky stolen documents and legal filings) and their many imitators. The snark media is gaining credibility, breaking stories like Mel Gibson’s arrest, and pushing the mainstream media to follow their lead, and change their own style of reportage.

These sites don’t have the symbiotic relationship with the stars or the studios that the gossip sites of old had. They don’t play with the myth; they destroy it. If one big star goes down in flames, so what? There will be others in line, waiting to embarass themselves.

Snarky sites had no interest in helping Tom Cruise’s PR reps save Cruise from himself, in hopes of getting an “exclusive” at a later date. The self-immolation of Tom Cruise was more entertaining from a snarkist’s perspective than any movie he has ever made; and, to them, more profitable. The worse, the better, from this media’s point of view. There’s no fun to be had in helping him dig himself out through extolling virtuous acts — in case he’s tempted to go off planting trees or saving Africa. Snark is the black hole of celebrity PR, sucking bad and good news into its gravitational wake.

sumner-redstone.jpgTo an increasing share of the movie/TV audience, every star is presumed to have a humiliating secret, whether they do or not. And it’s distracting to the moviegoer and TV-watcher, as Sumner Redstone suggests.

Cruise wasn’t acceptable anymore as a bold action hero, after the corrosive effect of reading over and over the bizarre stories of his religion, his peculiar courtship, his baby (the weird stories suggesting it might not even exist!) and any number of belittling things proved or unproved, but discussed openly in the snark media, which doesn’t even claim to be telling the truth in every case, just passing things along that you, the reader, might find amusing.

In the old days, er, five years ago, Team Cruise would have been able to counter all this. But I think the collective weight of the snark has diminished him, perhaps finished him, and certainly made it easier for a major studio to envision the future without him. Same with Mel Gibson. It is hard to imagine someone who has made so much money for himself and other people reaching the end of his career, but from now on, every move he makes will be written about purely in the light of his awful, drunken anti-Semitic rant, by snarky chroniclers who will be totally unimpressed by his acts of penance. Studios feel much safer passing on him now.

I’m sure Cruise and Gibson’s PR people thought at various points during the past few months, “It’ll all blow over. It always has before. They’ll be knocking on my door, desperate to meet my price.” Maybe they still think so. But the old PR strategies seem to have failed, and I’m not sure new ones yet exist to replace them.

It’s For…the Children! (and other bad PR practices)

There are some PR tactics that are still widely used even though they are counter-productive.

One of them was on display in today’s LA Times story about attempts by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan — among others — to amend the legislation that would allow current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to have more of a say in the operations of the LA Unified School District.

Riordan’s endorsement and support are crucial to Villaraigosa. He’s the mayor’s wingman on the right, and his link to Gov. Schwarzenegger. Also, Riordan has a long record of involvement in education and LAUSD specifically, whereas Villaraigosa’s involvement is of more recent vintage. The change Riordan wants is technical, but significant.

But Villaraigosa, for reasons the Times doesn’t satisfactorily examine, opposes Riordan’s change. (My guess is that it’s part of the deal he cut with the teachers’ union.) But the mayor doesn’t want to confront the ex-mayor directly. So he sidesteps him, sending forth his spokeswoman to say this:

“We have not accepted that amendment,” mayoral spokeswoman Janelle Erickson said.

“We need to shift the focus away from legislative maneuvering and put it back to the classroom,” she added. “This is really the best chance at reforming the schools that Los Angeles has seen in decades, and we must not lose sight of that.”

Gag me!

Does the mayor’s office really think that all rational discussion ends if you invoke “the classroom?” Do they really think Riordan will slap his palm to his head and say, “Damn it, you’re right, Antonio. What was I thinking? All those big fancy words in that legislation — they’re unimportant! What’s important is the classroom. Thank you for setting me straight.”

If you’re a PR person, know this: When you resort to a weepy invocation of “the children” in a serious policy discussion, it makes me think you’re trying to distract me from something you don’t want me to find out.

(Now, if only reporters would start thinking the same way.)

Wal-Mart Day at the LA Times

Two pages of the LA Times, two constrasting views of the Wal-Mart issue that, together, illustrate tremendous confusion in the Democratic Party over an issue where clarity would help them: Health care.

First, the Times’ lead editorial, which chastizes the Democratic Party for its “shameful demonization” of the discount retailer:

Most Americans do not want their politicians ganging up on one company. Wal-Mart may be a behemoth that employs 1.3 million people in this country and earned $11 billion in profit last year, but it still looks like bullying when politicians single out one business to scapegoat for larger societal ills. And when they start passing laws aimed at their scapegoat — as the Maryland Legislature did when it passed legislation forcing Wal-Mart to spend a certain amount on employee healthcare — the judiciary rightly balks. A federal judge struck down the regulation, holding that it violates laws requiring equal treatment of employers.

But there is no stopping the campaign rhetoric. At an anti-Wal-Mart rally last week in Iowa, Biden noted that the retailer pays people $10 an hour, and then asked: “How can you live a middle-class life on that?” It’s clearly the company’s fault, at least from a skewed senatorial perspective, that all Americans cannot live a comfortable middle-class life. How dare it pay prevailing retail wages? Bayh, who appeared at another rally, was quoted as saying that Wal-Mart is “emblematic of the anxiety around the country.” That may be true. But if it’s the emblem he’s worried about, he should stay in Washington and work to make healthcare more affordable for working families.

The gusto with which even moderate Democrats are bashing Wal-Mart is bound to backfire. Not only does it take the party back to the pre-Clinton era, when Democrats were perceived as reflexively anti-business, it manages to make Democrats seem like out-of-touch elitists to the millions of Americans who work and shop at Wal-Mart.

But then, on the facing page, columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan performs a rather difficult pirouette: Defending former UN Ambassador Andrew Young’s racially insensitive comments to the LA Sentinel, made on behalf of Wal-Mart, while condemning him for making those comments…on behalf of Wal-Mart. Get it?

After sapping the local economies of rural and semirural America, Wal-Mart set its sights on the urban market — corporate-speak for big, diverse cities like Chicago and Los Angeles that are densely populated with middle- to low-income black and Latino consumers. It swooped into Inglewood two years ago and put an initiative on the ballot that would have allowed one of the first Wal-Mart Supercenters in the state to be built — and would have allowed Wal-Mart to do it with virtually no city oversight. Inglewood voters rightly rebuffed the measure, rejecting Wal-Mart’s pitch that $5 T-shirts and $7-an-hour jobs would be the most transformative thing to happen to downtrodden black folk since the civil rights movement.

In such a context, bringing in former civil rights hero Young to do damage control, to belatedly lend some black credibility to the “urban” effort, seemed like a bad joke. Wal-Mart obviously missed the irony. The famously suave Young didn’t blink an eye.

Then he found himself face to face with the Sentinel crowd, which tends to be deferential to any black dignitary but which also includes a few skeptics, especially on the Wal-Mart issue. Undoubtedly thinking he could speak frankly to his own — that he could keep it real, as it were — Young repeated what blacks have said for generations: that members of other ethnic groups account for a disproportionate share of the merchant class in their own community.

He said it badly, and in painting all those merchants as uncaring and unethical, he said it too broadly. But he had a point. The chronic lack of business ownership among blacks in black communities is a real problem, and it was a major factor in civil unrest in 1965 and in 1992.

Young’s comments were called racist, and I don’t entirely agree. Certainly it’s despicable to exploit racial and economic anxiety in order to convince the black media that Wal-Mart is a solution. Being racially or ethnically specific, however, is not the same as being racist.

In ’92, people talked openly about the friction between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in South L.A. because, well, it was there. It had consequences. That window of public discussion has closed; now, discussing racial or ethnic groups in any forum less dry than academia is considered almost vulgar. In condemning Young as racist, we also killed the messenger.

Don’t get me wrong: Young paid the appropriate price. But the real vulgarity is the dire economic picture in black and brown neighborhoods represented all too well by the overabundance of “stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables” that Young cited. Loaf for loaf, a Wal-Mart Supercenter might have better food. But it — and Young — hardly have the right stuff.

Kaplan’s circular reasoning unintentionally supports the Times’ editorial position. Young was fired for making a reasonable point in an unreasonable way, using unacceptable ethnic stereotypes to illustrate a larger truth: The “Mom and Pop” stores in lower-income communities–the stores that Wal-Mart critics say they are worried will be run out of business–don’t deserve special protection if they aren’t serving their communities.

More broadly, Young was blowing the whistle on the sham aspects of the campaign against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart.Com are components of a “corporate campaign,” which is a term used by both labor and management to describe a labor-funded PR campaign to denigrate a company in order to force that company to agree to labor demands that can’t be won via collective bargaining or traditional organizing of workers.

In most cases, corporate campaigns are dishonest and border on blackmail. About a decade ago, I represented a health care firm that was targeted for a corporate campaign. The union running the campaign wanted the firm to waive its rights and make it extremely easy for the union to represent the firm’s workers. These workers had rejected the union up to now, but the union wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. So they started a corporate campaign against my client.

The corporate campaign never mentioned the plan to organize the workers. Instead, it accused my client of killing its patients. Since my client ran a chain of nursing homes for the elderly, it was not hard to find dead former patients to talk about. But the union figured that if it said “patients die” enough times, business would suffer, and this prospect would cause the company to change its position. The corporate campaign was damaging, but unsuccessful.

Labor has good reasons to be concerned about Wal-Mart. I don’t begrudge the labor movement getting into a fight with the retail giant. Wal-Mart poses a direct threat to union-won high wages and good benefits for workers at grocery chains like Ralph’s and Vons, as we saw with the grocery strike of a few years ago.

Wal-Mart can cut prices because they don’t pay their workers as much, and don’t lavish benefits on them. Over time, to stay in business, other retailers will have to match Wal-Mart’s wage and benefit structure — and they will find workers who are willing to take jobs that pay less. Unions want to forestall that trend because it will put yet more private sector workers out of their reach.

Wal-Mart’s policies are hastening a day of reckoning that has been looming for decades. The idea that employers should be responsible for our nation’s health care is a historical oddity; a byproduct of World War II-era wage and price controls, and political decisions that benefits should not be taxed as income in order to allow unions to win increases employee compensation without increasing their take-home pay.

Now that most Americans don’t work for big companies or belong to labor unions, this jury-rigged, inefficient and unfair model for providing health care is getting exposed — ironically, by Wal-Mart, which takes the position that consumers shouldn’t be forced to pay a premium price for a product in order to subsidize the health care of the workers who sold it to you.

So, who should?

The LA Times apparently thinks liberals have gotten off track with their attacks on Wal-Mart. They’re saying: Stop trying to force Wal-Mart to subsidize health care — and start working on a plan to get the federal government to do it. Democratic politicians fighting Wal-Mart are defending a status quo that doesn’t exist anymore. Organized labor is sending its political supporters in the Democratic Party down a primrose path to serve its own, narrower ends.

If Wal-Mart disappeared tomorrow–or if Wal-Mart suddenly decided to give all its workers health care coverage–that would still leave tens of millions of American families without anyone to subsidize their health care coverage. The Times, I think rightly, is chiding Democratic politicians for taking cheap shots at Wal-Mart as a substitute for doing anything to correct that basic injustice.

Perhaps, as Evan Bayh suggested, Wal-Mart is a symbol. But if your children get sick, symbolism can’t cure them. Developing a universal health care plan won’t be an easy thing, but if Democrats want to win in 2006 and 2008, they’d better start. Attacking Wal-Mart is a distracting indulgence in demagoguery.