I had a chance yesterday to talk with an old buddy of mine, Vern Gosworth, who works for a public relations firm. We met for lunch at Eppie’s. Vern hemmed and hawed and finally ordered the Wednesday special, hot tamales, but I stuck with the jerk chicken.
While we were sitting at the table, waiting for our names to be called, I asked him about the news this week that a Washington lobbying group hired by a coal industry consortium, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), had sent forged letters opposing clean air legislation to several members of Congress.
The letters were supposedly from organizations such as the NAACP and the American Association of University Women, but were actually written on fake letterheads.
“Boy, coal companies must be really angry that somebody they hired would try to deceive members of Congress into voting against the clean energy bill,” I said.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Vern. “They’ve issued a statement that they have ‘always maintained high ethical and professional standards,’ but then something like this happens and makes people wonder. I couldn’t blame them if they were furious.”
“Why are they so opposed to the clean energy bill?” I wondered.
“Are you kidding? It could end up costing them billions. Coal is the dirtiest energy out there. They shoveled out almost $11.8 million lobbying against this clean energy bill in the past three months, so you know it’s a huge issue for them.”
“If it’s that important, and they spent that kind of dough, they must have hired the best,” I reflected.
“For sure,” said Vern. “My outfit wanted the job, but we didn’t stand a chance with the Hawthorn Group in the hunt.”
“I think I know what you were up against,” I sympathized. “I was just checking them out on line. Their website says that they approach an ‘advocacy challenge’ with ‘all available means of persuasion.’ They must mean it; they run the phrase three times in three paragraphs on their home page. Your company probably didn’t stand a chance against one that was willing to use ‘all available means of persuasion.’ I hate to ask, but when they say ‘all available means of persuasion,’ do you suppose they mean ‘all available means of persuasion’?”
“You’re reading too much into that, Ace. What they really mean is ‘all available means of persuasion that are legal, ethical, responsible, and morally exemplary.’ They just keep it short because spelling that out would be too cumbersome,” Vern said.
““You’re probably right, I expect. But don’t you think there’s a danger that somebody reading their mission statement would think the Hawthorn Group is willing to do whatever it takes to sell whatever somebody is paying them to pitch?”
“Oh, absolutely not,” said Vern. “It’s already a given that these campaigns will operate on the highest moral and ethical plane; that’s the only way these companies will do business.”
“I see,” I nodded. “But if coal companies are shelling out millions of dollars to oppose the clean energy bill, don’t you thing they would spend some time with their PR firm laying out some guidelines for what they want, and then review ideas the firm comes up with before they okay them?”
“Oh heck no,” said Vern. “That’s not the way the big boys do it, Ace. It’s carte blanche. They just give us a budget, tell us to come up with something, and then forget about it. They trust us to do quality work.”
“And this unnamed employee who created the phony letters--is that the way these things normally operate? I mean, you’ve got a top-drawer client spending huge sums of money, and some employee, all on his own, without even talking with anybody else in the firm, without clearing his idea with some kind of boss or superior, takes it on himself to forge letters to members of Congress?”
“Incredible, isn’t it, Ace? We’ve got so much freedom in the PR business you wouldn’t believe it. We never clear anything with anybody before we put it into effect.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “not even something that important, involving so much money and the Federal government? The level of trust in your business is fantastic!.”
“Well,” he said modestly, “we’ve earned that level of confidence. That’s what they pay us for.”
“I was looking at the Bonner & Associates website too,” I went on. “They say that they have ‘a 25 year track record of extensive, winning experience in all levels of government,’ with ‘hands-on experience in winning tough fights.’”
“Uh huh,” Vern said.”
“So evidently this is a veteran outfit that doesn’t mind mixing it up if you pay them enough,” I surmised.
“Oh, I’d definitely say so,” agreed Vern.
“And yet something like this happened,” I pointed out. “You have a top PR firm, and a savvy insider firm that traffics in using grassroots organizations, both promoting themselves as delivering wins, and yet somehow you end up with a dirty, crooked stunt like this.”
“Ace, these things happen,” said Vern. “It was all the work of one person, a rogue temporary employee far down the food chain. Nobody higher up had any clue what that person was thinking of, squirreled away in some lonely cubbyhole. Now that it’s come to light, everybody’s embarrassed.”
“Do you suppose the employee was ‘temporary’ before news of the forgeries broke?”
“I couldn’t speculate on that, Ace.”
“It’s too bad the forgeries came to light after the vote on the bill, since a couple of congresspeople who got the letters actually voted against the clean energy bill.”
“The timing was unfortunate,” he agreed.
“The odd thing is that ACCCE, the consortium of coal companies, says that Bonner and Associates told them about the forgeries before the bill was voted on and before the news came out in the papers. They say that Bonner told them it had contacted the organizations whose names they used on the forged letters, as well as the congressional offices who got the letters, to clear everything up. Now the coal consortium is just shocked to learn that didn’t actually happen.”
“There you go. Somebody at Bonner dropped the ball. Probably got too busy in the hurly-burly of the campaign to follow up on that piece,” said Vern.
“It looks as if somebody at the coal consortium dropped the same ball,” I pointed out. “You wonder why they didn’t address the matter themselves, instead of leaving it to Bonner. And once they’d passed the buck--or bucks--you’d think they’d want to keep on top of the potential scandal, making sure it was taken care of, given their concern to see that “everyone involved in the public policy dialogue lives up to the highest ethical standards.”
“Hindsight is 20-20, Ace.”
“Hindsight is 11.8 million, Vern.”
© Tony Russell, 2009