Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bribe, Anyone?

Stories about the activities of “spin doctors” usually nowadays involve clever pronouncements by politicians that leave out key facts. The speakers obviously evade direct questions while launching the rehearsed speech they want to present to the public. The actors in these mini-dramas usually are coached by public relations practitioners.

Before television and the internet came to dominate the media world, public relations activities used some of the same techniques but were oriented much more to press agentry. Savvy newspaper people understood the game. The better ones took some delight in frustrating the “flacks.”

The only time I was called on the carpet during my days in public relations work for Allis-Chalmers was because I wasn't trying to bribe anybody.

Department Manager Al Leech chastised me.  Each of us could spend up to $200 a month buying drinks, dinners, and event tickets for news media personnel (at the time, dinner for one in a fairly good restaurant ran about $10, so $200 was a decent amount of spending money).  Leech pointed out that I had spent nothing after several months on the staff.  He said I was neglecting an important part of my duties.

Not being a shirker, I cast about for opportunities to use the special expense account.  I found one in our General Products Division.  Allis-Chalmers had bought a company in Appleton, Wisconsin, that manufactured equipment for the papermaking industry.  The plant manager wanted publicity, but he didn't really know about what.  He had contacted the A-C photography section, and they responded by sending out one of their people to shoot scenes inside the plant.  They had a batch of nice color prints, and no idea what to do with them.

The Milwaukee Journal had a young correspondent in Appleton.  I phoned him and said we had some good photos of our Appleton operation, and thought he might be able to do a feature article about the work there for the Journal's business page, using one of more of the shots.  We made a lunch date in Appleton to talk about it.

I took the photographer along in case different scenes were requested.  We got to the restaurant early.  To my surprise, a veteran reporter who worked at the business desk in the Journal office in Milwaukee walked in just minutes after we did.  Apparently, the neophyte correspondent thought he needed big-time help dealing with a high-powered PR man.

We had a couple of drinks while waiting for the correspondent.  When he appeared, we had another round.  We ate, and I showed our photos and suggested several story ideas.  The Journal men made no commitments.

When the waiter showed up to see if it was time for the check the young guy said it was going to be Dutch treat.  I said, "Oh no, I'm taking care of it."

The correspondent turned to his more experienced colleague.  "He can't do that!" he said.

"Oh yes he can," the veteran newsman replied.

I did, but to their credit, the Journal guys never pursued a story.  Their newspaper had a reputation as one of the best in the country, and part of that was based on strict adherence to journalism ethics.  You could have treated Journal reporters and editors to a full-scale Roman orgy, and I doubt it would have influenced their news decisions one iota.

Nevertheless, I learned that several of my colleagues routinely took Journal people and their wives (and their own wives) out to dinner at fancy Milwaukee restaurants and charged the outings to the company.  Did that benefit Allis-Chalmers?  It may have had the opposite effect.

About a month after my failed bribery attempt in Appleton, Leech stormed out of his office and barked, "I've got the biggest PR staff in the State of Wisconsin, and we can't get a paragraph in the Milwaukee Journal."

When I moved on to Job Corps public relations work as an RCA employee, I was authorized to use expense money to buy meals for reporters.  Many came to the center.  When lunchtimes rolled around, I told every one of them that they were welcome to eat with me in a dining hall operated by Corpsmen training for food service jobs.  They would have to pay for their own meal, just as I and every other staff member who ate there did.

The media people seemed to respect that approach. None ever turned the dining hall suggestion down.  I never spent a dime of RCA money wooing a reporter.  A lot of them wrote favorable stories about activities at our center.


JHawk23 said...

Good policy. A good professional journalist or politician might accept a lunch, but wouldn't let his opinion be swayed by it; on the other hand, a not-so-good wouldn't stay bribed anyway.

Kay said...

I'm so glad ethics is not dead in this country. Good for you!

PiedType said...

Bravo! I wish such ethics were still the norm, but my impression is that they aren't.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

The Bell System had a strict code regarding ethics. While I worked for them, I did much speaking for different groups and they always offered a stipend. I always had them donate it to my professional organization, The Population Association of America. The Civil Service was once quite ethical too.

joared said...

There also has been a long-standing perspective that "avoiding the appearance" of ethical violations is advisable. I'm not sure how much that standard is adhered to today.