Rough Week for the PR Biz

First, there was this oops (as described by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson)….

One of the feature stories in (Wired’s) package is a case study by Fred Vogelstein of Microsoft’s blogging initiative, which is something I’ve been really impressed by. Today the company has more than 3,500 bloggers and its corporate messaging has gone from mostly press releases and scripted executive speeches to more of an authentic conversation in public between rank-and-file employees and customers.

(snip)

Yet the old company culture is not gone, as evidenced by an executive briefing memo from Microsoft’s PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, that Vogelstein was inadvertently sent in the body of a scheduling email. At nearly 6,000 words, it’s an amazing document and a telling counterpoint to the laissez-faire spirit of the open blogging initiative. Because it so aptly illustrates the parallel open vs. closed cultures that now exist at Microsoft, as in any big company trying to evolve a command-and-control messaging process to an out-of-control age, we decided to post the whole thing online in the spirit of transparency.

The memo coaches the executives on what to say and what not to say. It talks about Vogelstein’s interviewing style and possible biases (also how he’s “tricky” and “digs for dirt”–the memo cautions the executives to avoid certain paths and to watch out for traps).

(snip)

On a personal note, it’s kind of freaky to read the memo describe how I was wooed (even manipulated, if you want to think of it that way) into commissioning the piece:

“CharlesF met with Chris Anderson during his fall tour in ’06, placing the idea that Microsoft is thinking differently and creatively about its outreach….Dan’l Lewin met with Chris Anderson in October and also emphasized the company’s work in the arena, pushing the story further…Jeff Sandquist traveled to the Bay Area to meet with Chris and his editorial team. They were highly engaged in Jeff’s conversation…” 

Yes, that’s pretty freaky.  Also freaky:  6,000 words, which works out to 13 single-spaced pages, much of it in 10-point type.  All this in preparation for what was evidently going to be a positive story.  The memo itself is linked in the body of Anderson’s post.  I started to read it, but then realized happily that I’m not being paid to read that kind of crap anymore. 

Hoo boy.  If I might offer a critique, if this was designed to prep an executive to be interviewed, it’s too much.  You’d freak him out.  When I worked in PR, I was accused of overwriting when I let a two-page memo stretch to three.

Then there’s the New Yorker’s long piece about my former firm’s (Edelman) work for Wal-Mart, and their efforts to get the Democratic Party to see the good in the discount giant.   The writer, Jeffrey Goldberg, lets us know early what he thinks of Edelman, Wal-Mart and the PR business with this little summary of the players:

The job of the Edelman people—there are about twenty, along with more than three dozen in-house public-relations specialists—is to help Wal-Mart scrub its muddied image. Edelman specializes in helping industries with image problems; another important client is the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington lobbying group that seeks to convince Americans that oil companies care about the environment and that their profits are reasonable. Edelman does its work by cultivating contacts among the country’s opinion élites, with whom it emphasizes the good news and spins the bad; by such tactics as establishing “Astroturf” groups, seemingly grass-roots organizations that are actually fronts for industry; and, as I deduced from my own visit to Bentonville, by advising corporate executives on how to speak like risk-averse politicians.

After that paragraph, I’m sure the folks in Bentonville hit the liquor department (does Wal-Mart sell liquor?).  The rest of the story doesn’t get any better.  Out of respect to my former colleagues, I won’t quote any more of it.  Just so they all know: I don’t think the story is entirely fair. 

Back to the Wag-Ed mistake: I have been there!  When I was at Edelman, we represented Community Memorial Hospital during part of its fight with Ventura County over something the hospital’s president, an eccentric fellow named Dr. Michael Bakst, believed would cost his privately-run institution a whole lot of money. I don’t recall the details.

I was up in Ventura, getting ready for an important press conference.  Unfortunately and unavoidably, the press conference coincided with an in-house event at the largest paper in Ventura, the Star, which all reporters were required to attend.  I worked it out with the reporter that we would fax him the release when we made the announcement. (In 1995, we weren’t e-mailing press releases yet.)  I had a secretary in LA all set to do this.  I told him where the release was, where the right stationary was, the fax number, what time to send it….

Somehow, my secretary thought it was okay to print a document onto the stationary, and then, without looking at it, shove it straight into the fax machine.  Whoever was supposed to be supervising him figured he couldn’t screw that up, and let him handle it alone.  After the fax went through, the secretary looked at what he’d sent. 

It was a draft of a memo written by one of my colleagues — a distressingly cynical memo, splattered with scare quotes that made it seem like, wink-wink, we knew the press conference just was a big scam to manipulate stupid reporters.  The secretary, realizing his error, called the reporter and begged him to destroy the erroneous fax.  The reporter said he would. 

The secretary figured he was in the clear, so he never told me about this.  I talked to the reporter later that day, and never gave me any hint of the fax he had seen. The story that ran in the next day’s paper was completely straightforward.  Nobody had any reason to suspect anything was amiss, least of all me.  It seemed like it had been a successful day.

A week later, my phone rings.  It’s Dr. Bakst.  “What kind of operation are you people running down there in Los Angeles? Trying to make me look bad?”  Dr. Bakst had a suspicious streak, and I’d encountered it already a couple of times.  The hospital’s administration was full of rumor-mongers.  I thought this was just another test of my loyalty.  I tried to calm him down, but he continued, accusing me of telling the editor of the Star he was “some kind of phony, trying to put one over on the media.” 

“I never talked to the editor of the Star.”

“Oh yeah?  Well, where did he get these quotes?” which he proceeded to read to me from the editor’s weekly column.  “I’m seriously thinking about firing you guys.”

All sense of reality seemed to be ebbing away. How…what…huh?  I told Dr. Bakst I’d investigate and hung up.  I started storming around the office like a confused rooster in a solar eclipse.  Hearing this ruckus, my secretary quietly approached me:  “I think I might know something about this.”

After he told the story, I fired him on the spot–the only time I’ve ever done that–not for his idiotic mistake, but for keeping it a secret.   My staff and I tried to do damage control, but it was too late.  The client bolted — a client we could ill-afford to lose. Dr. Bakst later hired Fleishman-Hillard, but not before calling to offer me a job, which seemed like a strange thing to do as he was kicking me out the door.

Although I might appear to have been an innocent victim, I do accept the blame to this extent:  About a week earlier, the secretary had come to see me to ask my advice about “investments.”  It turned out he was being drawn into a pyramid scheme by some people he’d met at a dance club.  I couldn’t believe he was that stupid, to fall for such an obvious rip-off.  And yet I trusted someone that dumb to perform a crucial task. 

5 thoughts on “Rough Week for the PR Biz

  1. John, as you have discerned, the article in the New Yorker is manifestly unfair. Working Families for Wal-Mart has over 100,000 real people as members. It is a real organization. More to the point, Wal-Mart is making a serious contribution to the evolution of thinking on the environment, is offering low cost pharmaceuticals and is saving working people over $200 million a year in grocery, apparel and other retail categories. I am proud that Edelman works with this company.

  2. While I won’t dispute that Wal-Mart is “making a serious contribution to the evolution of thinking on the environment, is offering low cost pharmaceuticals and is saving working people over $200 million a year in grocery, apparel and other retail categories”, my guess is that, if Wal-Mart weren’t Mr. Edelman’s client, he would have had nothing to post here.
    I am not anti Wal-Mart. I just choose not to shop there or any other “big box” store that purports be ” saving working people ” money because ,ultimately, they are usually squeezing their “working people” and other working people to save the other “working people” money. As long as I have a choice, I usually support local businesses because the service is better. Bottom line is that I vote on this with my dollars and Wal-Mart (and Home-Depot) never gets a vote. And John, I apologize for this post as it is off the subject you were addressing but I was compelled to rebut Mr. Edelman’s self-serving post.

  3. I’m not a control freak about the topic, so don’t worry about that.

    As a resident of the Los Angeles area, Wal-Mart is an almost exotic experience. For a variety of reasons, including politics, there are no Wal-Marts here to check out. The only one I’ve ever been to is in Temecula, about 80 miles from here. Yeah, it’s cheaper, but I wouldn’t drive 80 miles for it unless I happened to be passing through.

    What you’re talking about, Chris, is balancing the positive things Wal-Mart indisputably offers working-class people, access to products they might not otherwise be able to afford, against the pressure the company exerts on manufacturers and the labor market as a whole to keep costs down by keeping wages down.

    To me, the balance favors Wal-Mart. You’re talking tens of millions who benefit as consumers, versus a far smaller group of people who are directly hurt. Don’t forget, Wal-Mart didn’t invent manufacturing of clothing or electronics overseas. That’s a trend that’s been underway since the 1960s. I just got a book from Amazon that was printed in China; but I shouldn’t have been so surprised. This is what’s been happening for a long time, and if Wal-Mart disappeared, the trend would not change. The theory of “comparative advantage” and the rapidity of goods movement across the globe almost guarantees that your “local market” would also get most of its manufactured consumer goods from overseas. Somehow, we in America have survived it. Our unemployment numbers have been low for most of the past 15 years.

    The main victims of Wal-Mart’s cost-squeezing approach, if you want to call them victims, are grocery store workers. There’s no getting around that. You just have to decide if the premium on goods offered at Albertson’s or Ralphs to pay union wages is an appropriate tax on the wages of those stores’ consumers, who don’t have a union to argue for them, but can make choices as to where they shop.

    Where I think Wal-Mart is really in the wrong is in its harsh treatment of its own workers, including the spying and so forth documented this week in the NY Times. I assume Edelman will want to help their client see how disturbing many of us find that kind of survellience of employees’ private lives.

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