Monday, June 25, 2007

Lobbying flack - or is that flak?

This weekend I received this e-mail.

Hi Doug
I’m Evan Kraus, and I direct online media outreach for APCO Worldwide. Earlier this month, Ken Silverstein, a reporter for Harpers Magazine, approached APCO disguised as a British lobbyist named “Kenneth Case” from a firm called “The Maldon Group” representing Lebanese businessmen with interests in Turkmenistan and asking for a proposal on how APCO might help protect their investments. As we would for any potential client, we prepared a capabilities demonstration and began a process to vet this potential client. Before we had an opportunity to complete this process, Harpers Weekly ran a story about our presentation. Silverstein did not call us for comment prior to publication. We were later contacted by a Washington Post reporter who alerted us to the masquerade.

Earlier today, APCO received an email from “Kenneth Case” at The Maldon Group that read, “APCO is going to get creamed by [Bill] Moyers tonight.”

We called PBS and they confirmed Moyers was planning to run a story. We offered to make APCO available to comment or respond, but PBS informed us that the story was already in the can.

Since you work in the field of journalistic ethics, you understand the importance of transparency and two-way communication. Silverstein has apparently decided that his will be the only view shared on this issue. I thought this debate may be of interest to your readers and of course, would be very interested to get your view on Silverstein's actions.

If you’d like to hear both sides of the story as you consider this, I am happy to make B. Jay Cooper -- the Deputy Managing Director of our Washington office available for a phone conversation at your request. I’ll also be following up with you about this after tonight's show.

Thanks for your consideration of this matter.

Best regards,

Evan Kraus
senior vice president and director, APCO Online

APCO Worldwide
700 12th Street, N.W.
Suite 800
Washington, DC 20005

I suppose I should be flattered in being invited into what has become a rather well-pouplated thread on the Harper's piece.

I've read Apco's plaintive statement and listened to Silverstein and Cooper go at it on NPR. My conclusions:

-- Silverstein has pulled just a little bit of the covers off the sordid underbelly of Washington lobbying.
-- Cooper's splitting hairs about whether his company was seeking to represent the government of Turkmenistan or some -- as Silverstein called it -- "mobbed up" company that represented itself as deep into the affairs of Turkmenistan.
-- Do I have a problem with Silverstein's going under cover? No, because I doubt there was any other way to get the insight he did.

Having said that ...
-- Silverstein and Harper's have done journalism some damage. If you use extraordinary means to get information, then you must use extraordinary care to be fair. I am not sure why Harper's and Silverstein did not give Apco and the other company a chance to respond. Was there fear an injunction might be sought? (Update: Maybe not an injunction, but Silverstein in a Howard Kurtz story alludes to a related concern: "These guys are professional spinners, and I didn't feel like giving them six weeks to lie their way out of the story.")

OK, then publish. But you have the Internet these days, so why don't I see a full response up on Harper's site now -- at least some acknowledgment of the controversy? Or at least a link to Apco's complaint? Why must I go to NPR or elsewhere to find it? If Mr. Silverstein is going to tussle with dogs, transparency on his part is the best flea repellent. And in the process he commits a major tactical mistake in journalism -- he allows himself and his techniques to become the story, not the substance of the article.

In this Internet age, Silverstein and Harper's show a remarkable lack of understanding of how online could be used to strengthen their work. For that, I'd have to give them at best a B- and maybe a C+ on what otherwise could have been an A job.

-- Moyers really confounds me. Yes, the segment of the show is a "conversation," but no one ever said a conversation had to be just two people. Moyers had a responsiblity to have both sides represented. The host on NPR's Talk of the Nation showed it can be done without becoming a shoutfest.

Moyers did, in the last third of the interview, briefly touch on the ethical questions, but with largely softball questions: "As a potential client - we have to be honest here - you had to lie to these lobbyists." And the heavy follow up? "I often remind myself that investigative journalism is not a collaboration between the journalist and the source."

That's true, but Moyers isn't doing any investigative journalism here. He's doing the after-action cleanup, and as such has an even greater responsibility to let the public hear both sides. But he does at least have a link to Apco's response and a forum for people to comment, neither of which exists at Harper's. So let's give him a B.

As for Apco (and Cassidy), I think the best advice comes from Dave Henderson, who pulls out a page from Public Relations 101: This is a big mistake, in my opinion, because they are perpetuating media interest in the story. They are just creating fodder for other news organizations.

Or, as Kenny Rogers sang, you gotta know when to fold 'em.

Time, it seems to me, for Harper's, Silverstein and Moyers to think a little harder about ethics and transparency and for these exposed lobbying firms to mosey on, since ethics doesn't really seem to be their strong suit anyhow.
Silverstein e-mailed me this morning with the title "Left you a voice mail" (I am home and have not yet had a chance to listen to his voice mail):
appreciate your post but felt compelled to respond because apco lied to you about an email they received. also, contray to what you posted, i have replied on my web site to apco and linked to their press release, which was quite easy to demolish.
ken silverstein
I asked for the link to his post, and his reply:
thanks. also disturbs me that they have lied in their press release about my emailing them on friday. can they prove it?

I encourage you to go to his post and read further his quotes from the company e-mail.

But my response to him was and remains the same: All this is good, but it should be with the original story. There is no link there to this. There is no link to the copies of these e-mails he now excerpts in his blog. There is no link to Apco's or Cassidy's Web sites or any indication of an attempt to solicit a statement from them. My point here is not the veracity of Silverstein's story or the textbook crisis managment way Apco has responded (minimize the importance, quibble on relatively minor details, try to shift the focus back to the reporter) -- it's that Silverstein and Harper's, by failing to take advantage of the power and breadth of online, have left themselves open to e-mails like Apco's above. Had they solicited Apco's statement earlier and then run it side by side with the story (or if they somehow feared some prior restraint, at least linked to it once it appeared online), and perhaps with Silverstein's response and copies of the original e-mails (see Silverstein's response to Kurtz for a bit more on that -- apparently Moyers had "exclusivity" that Silverstein says prevented early posting of those -- letting a TV program lock up something like that is for another debate), it potentially would have been an even more powerful piece.

The reason I ran Apco's e-mail in full was so that readers who visit here can make their own informed judgments.

(Copyright Doug Fisher 2007. This may be reproduced only in its entirety and not excerpted or remixed.)

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At 7/10/07, 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evan Kraus is also the son of APCO's President and CEO, Margery Kraus.

At 7/11/07, 9:38 PM, Anonymous Laurence Socci said...

As a lobbyist in Washington, DC, I don't understand the point that Silverstein was trying to make. Is that that federal lobbyists should not represent "bad" countries? If so, would he feel the same way about a lawyer representing an accused rapist or murderer? Maybe he was trying to prove that there are lobbying firms who would advocate on behalf of countries like Turkmenistan. If that was his whole point then I can tell him that he should have contacted me, he wouldn't have had to work so hard. I would have no problem representing Turkmenistan or any country like them. Why? For a couple of reasons: (1) I would never do anything illegal or unethical, so as soon as a situation came up that fell into either of those categories, I'd be gone. (2) I know that my role is that of advisor and advocate. I am not the person who can change the law on behalf of any client. That's up to Congress or the federal government, and (3) I believe that everyone, including "bad" countries deserve to petition the federal government. Whether the federal government actsupon that petition is another story, but I can help them get their foot in the door.


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