For a public relations firm, Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson was keeping quiet. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based outfit had found itself embroiled in a scandal in a town of less 5,000 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson’s client was Meijer Inc., a family-owned grocery and goods retailer that is one of America’s largest privately owned companies. Together they faced a public relations crisis that questioned the ethical standards of the public relations industry.
According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Meijer hired Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson in the spring of 2006 to spearhead a campaign aimed at recalling the board of Acme Township. The public relations firm reportedly billed Meijer over $30,000 to help launch and manage a pro-recall group. The failed recall was aimed at removing local officials who opposed Meijer’s plans to build a store in the community.
“The firm’s secretive efforts included flooding the Record-Eagle with letters to the editor and opinion page ‘forums’ that were written by the firm but attributed to local residents,” Brian McGillivary reported in the Record-Eagle. “Additionally, Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson invoices show it conducted ‘research’ on the Record-Eagle’s publisher and editor.”
Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson’s charges included $47.50 to scan online news coverage of the recall effort; $62.50 to stategize on a petition drive; and $93.75 to gather information in response to a letter written by former Governor William Milliken.
It is illegal for corporations to make campaign contributions and Meijer stood accused of violating election laws. News of Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson’s involvement came to light after a local official countersued Meijer. One Meijer official, the director of real estate, had been publicly named in the scandal and high-ranking company executives publicly stated that they were unaware of the company’s involvement. Meijer vowed to cooperate with the Michigan Secretary of State, launched its own probe, and said it will take corrective action.
On the other hand, Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson has not commented on the issue. Ironically, the firm’s co-founder, Ginny Seyferth, had given an interview to the Grand Rapids Press before the Meijer story came to light. The story was about women entrepreneurs and Seyferth spoke about her experience launching a firm in an area where most companies looked to Chicago or New York for their public relations services.
As I read the coverage of this burgeoning local scandal, I kept wondering whether Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson knew that it was doing something wrong. The firm has been in business for more than two decades and its recent clients include the American Cancer Society, the City of Detroit, Georgia-Pacific, McDonald’s, and Staples, so I suspect that they are good at what they do. The evidence they knew what they were doing in this scandal did not look good.
My own experience in public relations relates to consumer and business-to-business oriented companies. I’ve never done public relations work on a political campaign, though I was on the receiving end of plenty of pitches and sorties from political PR firms and lobbyists when I was a journalist. To get an expert perspective, I emailed a long-time friend and well-connected lobbyist some of the stories regarding Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson and Meijer.
“This isn’t anything new,” responded my friend, who has worked on national political campaigns. “What’s probably the most interesting aspect of this story is that Meijer’s higher-ups were not involved. Typically you’re not going to have someone junior running this type of program.”
Disregarding the fact that “this isn’t anything new,” did the public relations firm in question do anything wrong?
“I don’t think you can get away with this stuff like you could in the old days,” my politically savvy friend said, pointing out how many companies and organizations have been busted for “astroturfing,” faking a grassroots campaign to make deflect a public relations firm’s involvement.
“Ethically, it’s wrong,” he said. “But when has ethics gotten in the way of public relations?”
Was it ethically wrong? According to The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), it was. As T. Michael Jackson, senior counsel of Jackson and Associates, pointed out in a Record-Eagle editorial, the Public Relations Society of America guidelines on ethics state that an example of Improper Conduct Under the Disclosure of Information Provision is when “a member implements ‘grass roots’ campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.”
Seeking more input, I spoke to a friend who once did some public relations work for Wal-Mart.
“Yes, we would have done something like this if they asked us to,” she told me. “Anything to please the client.”
Would she do it now?
“No, but that’s because I have my own firm and I don’t have any interest in getting involved in something that can blow-up in my face,” she said. “But I’m sure that plenty of firms wouldn’t have an issue with it. Someone would do it because the money is just too good.”
That begs the question: Would you have taken on the Meijer job? What if you could have done so knowing that you could never get caught?
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.