Clippings: Flacks can drive an editor crazy
I get a lot of press releases in my email, hundreds a week, and they are the bane of my work life.
No, not the press releases I get from you, dear reader, about church dinners and teen center fundraisers. If you are reading this I would probably appreciate getting a press release from you.
The press releases I hate are the ones that come from people at agencies in New York and Boston and Dallas who have no idea where Addison County, Vermont, is and frankly don’t care. All they want to do is get someone’s message in front of the most eyeballs possible.
From my days as an editor at a national high tech magazine I have a composite picture in my head of the actual low-level flunkies who have the thankless job of compiling the email lists and sending out the initial email blasts to news outlets big and small across the country. They are young, they’re not dumb but they are inexperienced. They like the money they make, the nice clothes they get to wear, and the drinks they buy for editors at publications where they are supposed to place stories. They don’t initially know what role they play in the corporate machinery, but as they learn they either make peace with it and do their job, or they see the pointlessness and move on.
The flaks at these places can be really good at writing subject lines for their press releases. I’m embarrassed to admit the number of emails I open because the subject line sounds like it just might be something that could find a home in the Independent, only to find it’s nothing really. It’s a little game. If they get me to open their email, they win. Of course, if I fail to open an important email because I assumed it was trash, I lose.
Some press releases are so obviously phony that I can’t help but take a peak at them. By “phony” I don’t mean they are simply untrue on the surface, I mean they are insincere and false to their very core.
For instance, this past winter I got an emailed press release with the subject line “Media Avail: Consumer Group Calls Bill Targeting Soda Misguided.” Now, right off, what Vermont organization is going to offer a “media availability” in which a spokesman is ready and willing to talk? In Vermont I’ve had the experience of calling the Secretary of State’s office and getting the secretary himself on the line no problem — who needs a spokesman here?
Next red flag: The email began “Hi John.” This email came from someone named Allison Miller, whom I don’t know. I’m old school enough to want to at least be introduced to someone before they address me so casually.
The email offered to put me on the phone with “J. Justin Wilson, Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom” to talk about a bill in the Vermont Legislature that “would place a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.” I was impressed that the pitch was actually about a subject that just might be of interest to my readers. But with a name like the “Center for Consumer Freedom” I could guess that J. Justin would clearly be in favor of giving consumers a choice (which, incidentally, would also be good for beverage makers and restaurants).
The pitch continued as expected, with the only slip being when Allison suggested that if soda pop was taxed people might switch to drinking untaxed beverages like … milk! She clearly didn’t know her audience here.
I recently found the time to look into the Center for Consumer Freedom. I went to its website and found, front and center, an unflattering photo of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg under a huge headline that said, “The Nanny”; the subhead was “You only thought you lived in the land of the free.”
Two things immediately tipped me off to the fact that this site was made by a bunch of hacks: 1. Bloomberg’s head is pretty obviously Photoshopped onto a torso that is probably not his; he’s wearing a light blue jacket with an open neck accented by a cheap-looking nylon scarf in pastel colors. C’mon, Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire who made his money selling business news — he dresses in conventional Wall Street power suits.
2. The subhead ended with a period. Really? Call me a newspaper snob, but headlines and subheadlines are statements; they may end in question marks and only occasionally exclamation points (The Red Sox Win!), but they never end in periods.
The outfit is clearly run by shills who are putting out suspect or completely bogus information to varnish the reputations of big food interests. One of the sister sites it lists is HowMuchFish.com, which pooh-poohs the notion that mercury in fish is really much of a problem; it even offers a free HowMuchFish iPhone app. Other sister sites include ObesityMyths.com and PetaKillsAnimals.com.
I tried to check out mercuryfacts.org, but when I clicked on the link my web browser gave me a scary message that said, “Warning: Visiting this site may harm your computer. The site you are visiting may contain malware.”
I hit the back button.
I saw that someone named Richard Berman is executive director of the center so I started poking around the Internet. On the site campaignmoney.com I saw a long list of Richard Bermans who have made political contributions; I guess it’s a popular name. Let’s see, the first Richard Berman gave $250 to Obama for America in 2008. No, that couldn’t be the Richard Berman I was looking for; this one was identified as a self-employed musician living in Amherst, Mass.
Wait, this Richard B. Berman had to be our man. He lives in Washington, D.C., and works in PR and Communications. He gave $2,300 to McCain for America 2008 Inc. Hmm, seemed like a pretty small gift for such a high roller. Oh wait, he also gave $28,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee around the same time. Bingo.
I did some more Googling and found a website devoted solely to unmasking the Center for Consumer Freedom. It had the same site design and color scheme, and it was called the “Center for Consumer Freedom … or Deception? You decide.” This site went into meticulous detail about how Berman uses his center to put out misinformation. It showed how, in 1995, Berman was a restaurant industry lobbyist who gave Newt Gingrich $25,000 when he was trying to stop an increase in the minimum wage, and Gingrich ended up in front of the House Ethics Committee for influence peddling. It showed how one of Berman’s other interests, the Center for Union Facts, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that doesn’t pay taxes, and recently had an advertisement refused by the Chicago Tribune because of its “racial undertones.”
I love it. This guy is right out of Central Casting at the old Hollywood movie companies. He’s so easy to hate.
But then I think about Allison Miller, the little flak who harassed me with unwanted and misleading email. I should hate her, too, I suppose. But somehow, I feel that she is probably one of those peons who is swept up in the bright lights and big money.
Get out, Allison! Get out and turn your energies to teen center dinners and church fundraisers, before you make peace with the dark side and get forever diverted to my spam folder.
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