Policy & PR 

How taxpayer-funded public relations are shaping the news.

For 28 years, attorney John Pierotti worked in the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office, the last six of them as D.A.

He and his staff prosecuted thousands of criminals and took thousands of pleas but sent out few press releases or public service announcements. Nor did Pierotti have a media spokesperson or hire a public relations firm. Reporters with inquiring minds were called on the telephone or invited into Pierotti's office where the raspy-voiced prosecutor chain-smoked cigarettes and answered questions or called in someone who could. The message that crime does not pay was either self-evident or left to others to spread.

"No, nobody ever had a PR firm," Pierotti said, laughing before he realized the question was serious. "I just never saw the need for it. I had the feeling that I needed to deal directly with the public."

Pierotti's successor, Bill Gibbons, has a different approach.

"Our bottom line is not to send a lot of people to prison but to deter crime," he said. Gibbons is a comfortable public speaker and experienced at networking. He comes from a political background in the Republican Party, the Shelby County Commission, and the Memphis City Council, and he once ran for city mayor. He has a full-time spokesperson and has used federal grants to hire outside PR firms to produce projects such as the $250,000 "No Deals" media campaign. He admits it is hard to prove such campaigns work, but he believes they "get the talk right at the street level" and, besides, "if we don't tap into that federal money, some other city will."

He said he does not personally appear in ads lest they seem overtly political and self-serving.

As newspapers try to stem a decline in readership, voter apathy increases, and the Internet and television present new alternatives to the traditional news media, one form of "news" is booming. It is rare today to find a public agency, a branch of government, or quasi-public agency that doesn't have an in-house public relations or "PR" person, a marketing budget, and occasional help from an outside PR firm to put a positive spin on stories.

Key public officials have always had spokespersons, of course. It is simply impossible for mayors and police directors to take all the phone calls from reporters when news is breaking. Sometimes the call volume even overwhelms their assistants, as it did during the recent war of words between Mayor Willie Herenton and the Memphis City Council.

But that's not to say the job is a daily three-alarm fire. Far from it. Some mayoral media aides have additional duties or engage in partisan political activity. Herenton spokeswoman Gail Jones Carson is a leader in the Shelby County Democratic Party. Tom Jones, who started as the spokesman and wordsmith of Shelby County government, vastly expanded the role under mayors Bill Morris and Jim Rout. Jones helped make county policies as well as sell them and served on the board of several agencies. His successor, Susan Adler Thorp, has a more traditional role under Mayor A C Wharton.

Beneath the mayors is a host of other divisions of local government that do a little or a lot of of taxpayer-funded marketing and image polishing. They include MATA, the Memphis City Council, MLGW, and the city and county schools. Spreading the good word gets to be a crowded field when you add quasi-governmental agencies that get some public funds, such as the Center City Commission, Riverfront Development Corporation, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, the Memphis Regional Chamber, and the Public Building Authority.

If you haven't figured out by now that Memphis is a swell place to be then you haven't been paying attention.

The Spin Cycle

Well, what's the matter with that? After all, reporters are gloomy cynics who make mistakes and offer wrongheaded analysis and have an incomplete view of people, places, and events. So why not get the news about the Police Department, MATA, crime-fighting, the FedExForum, the schools, or the City Council right from the horse's mouth?

Nothing at all, if you believe that the Memphis Police Department is "not only the largest municipal police department in Tennessee, it also is the best." That's what police director James Bolden wrote in a recent op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal. Bolden neglected to mention the federal indictments that say the Police Department let millions of dollars' worth of drugs and evidence be stolen by its own employees from the property room, rendering the work of good cops useless and possibly jeopardizing cases.

Bolden, who appears in safe-driving television spots called "Booze it and lose it," went on to write of the newly created Office of Integrity and Compliance within Internal Affairs: "I want the citizens to understand that our officers do not just police them -- that the Police Department also is in the business of making sure our own personnel follow the rules at all times." There was no mention of a government audit which warned about problems in the property room long before the indictments were returned.

The core belief of Shelby County's No Deals campaign is that criminals make decisions and that ads can influence them. Citing jail intake interviews and other sources, Gibbons says there are 10,000 gang members in Memphis. As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, the Memphis Police Department denied that there were any. Now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander goes so far as to call gang members "terrorists in Memphis."

Playing up crime can justify budgets and expensive crime-fighting tools. But did No Deals have any deterrent effect on Terry Caraway or Henry Lee Jones or Tevarus Young? Caraway is a 15-year-old runaway, truant, and juvenile delinquent. Earlier this year he allegedly surprised 44-year-old Karla Baker in her Raleigh home after she returned from a chemotherapy treatment. He made her lie on the floor then killed her with a shot to the back of her head. Jones and Young, just passing through from Florida, are accused of slitting the throats of an elderly couple in Bartlett two months ago.

Gibbons said there will always be such tragedies but that, overall, violent crime in Memphis is declining, even after police in 2000 began counting, for example, a robbery in the course of a rape and assault as three offenses instead of one. But that raises another question: which message to believe? Are there 10,000 terrorists in our midst or is violent crime declining?

Other public agencies make debatable claims aimed at influencing policy. If you believe MATA, 73 percent of Memphis residents favor completion of a light-rail system from downtown to Memphis International Airport. That was the result of a MATA-financed survey made public two weeks ago.

The system is estimated to cost $400 million. If the federal government approved it, the federal share would be roughly $200 million and the state and local share would be $200 million. The 675 respondents to the survey were not asked if they wanted a $400 million light-rail system, only if they favored completion of such a system -- price excluded.

"When you start prefacing, then you prejudice the response," said Randy Baker, an associate of Thompson & Company, MATA's marketing firm. The survey was conducted by another firm, Ragland Research.

Baker said the financing for mass transit is a subject for another survey and another campaign on another day.

"People know there's a cost," he said. "A first poll measures propensities."

The poll also showed that 85 percent of Memphians say they will use such a system at least on occasion. Baker, who was assistant general manager of the transit authority in Houston several years ago, said even he found the number "almost too good to be true." The poll is essentially a momentum builder. MATA will use the results to muster state and federal support. If it is successful, then it will go to Nashville and local governing bodies for the heavy lifting, using the ever-popular lure of matching funds.

The Memphis City Schools has one of the larger marketing and communications departments, partly because it has to communicate with the parents of some 118,000 students. The system's academic problems are well known, and, to its credit, MCS administrators and school board members have been pretty up-front about facing them without sugarcoating the facts.

Facing the facts about the budget is another matter. A $575,000 consultant's study last year said the system could save $69 million by closing underused schools and canceling the construction of others on the drawing board.

That recommendation has languished. Instead, the school board is taking a cue from Oprah and trying to get off on the right foot with new superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson by reading a management text and giving book reports. Former Superintendent Herenton says all the talk is just beating around the bush, and after more than a decade, it's tiresome and expensive. Closing schools and combining systems, he says, is the only way to save significant money, but politicians don't have the courage to do it.

The mayor was criticized in some quarters for being tough on MLGW and its former president, Herman Morris. But until the mayor spoke out and decided to replace Morris, MLGW was skating on deceptively thin ice thanks to a pliant board of directors and its "Hometown Energy" marketing campaign or what Herenton called "self-aggrandizing" announcements sent to its customers along with their bills.

The fallout was part of the war of words between the council and the mayor over a replacement for Morris and four city division directors. The MLGW presidency and two director jobs remain unfilled. But there's been some upside to reality TV instead of PR as policy at City Hall. Taxpayers have learned, according to Herenton, that MLGW's pension plan is overly generous -- as is, according to the City Council, Herenton's habit of appointing 100 or more special city employees without anyone's approval.

The federal government is not averse to a little public-funded PR. Judges and prosecutors are probably the most powerful and least scrutinized public officials in Memphis. There is no longer a press room in the federal building, and media coverage is limited to occasional trials and press conferences announcing indictments. Think of a federal prosecutor as a newspaper editor with subpoena power, long deadlines, the vast resources of the FBI, a big budget, and a ready-made all-purpose answer of "we don't discuss pending cases."

That is not exactly correct. For one thing, why then have a full-time public affairs person on staff? A secretary could inform the media when major indictments are handed up. Why hold a press conference to announce the indictment of football coach Lynn Lang? An indictment, of course, is the government's version of the story and speaks pretty loudly all by itself. And if the indictment of a rogue football coach is worth a photo-op, why was the indictment of Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith, who allegedly lied to the police and the public about being tied up with barbed wire and a bomb and may have contaminated hundreds of cases, worth only a one-page statement?

It wasn't always so. Former U.S. attorneys Hickman Ewing Jr., Dan Clancy, and Ed Bryant managed to operate without a public affairs person. All of them made themselves available for background sessions with reporters -- at a time when the federal court beat was still considered a plum assignment.

The inner workings of the prosecutor's office may come to light later this year. Two heavyweight trials featuring defense attorneys who are former federal prosecutors are on the court docket this summer.

Barring a surprise, football booster Logan Young will go on trial in May, and Lang will be a star witness for the government. Last week, a judge upheld the right of Young's attorneys to subpoena University of Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer and NCAA investigation records. They will show how closely the federal government's two-year investigation tracked the NCAA's noncriminal investigation of Young and the University of Alabama as well as specifics of the role played by "whistleblower" Milton Kirk.

Also scheduled for trial this year is Dr. Randy Lazar, a pediatrician indicted for overbilling. His lawyers include former federal prosecutors Clancy and Marc Garber, who specialized in prosecuting Medicare fraud for the government when he worked in New Jersey, Florida, and Nevada.

Without mentioning any specific cases, Clancy said that in his second career as a defense attorney specializing in white-collar crime he has seen what he calls "speaking indictments" out of the Memphis district which include "a lot of extraneous information damaging to the defendant."

"Big Time" PR

News reporters aren't the only ones who have to separate news from PR. The arrival of the Memphis Grizzlies mixed sports with politics and business. The push to build the FedExForum, which was a contingency for the Grizzlies to move here, was, as NBA Now liked to say, "big time" in every sense.

The big announcement and press conference was three years ago at the Plaza Club with the mayors, NBA Now leaders, and officials of FedEx and AutoZone. Several downtown PR firms and the Center City Commission made sure the room was packed with a friendly audience.

Anyone who remembered the controversy over building The Pyramid knew that a new publicly funded arena would face a tough fight. The true cost would be every bit of $250 million plus the debt on The Pyramid. The well-orchestrated show of solidarity represented only a slice of the business community, much less the taxpayers. The challenge was getting someone influential to say so. PR firms for the Grizzlies and the Public Building Authority tried to keep the focus off of politics and cost concerns by taking reporters to see a new arena in Indianapolis. But sizzle wasn't the issue.

Mike Rose was an obvious call -- a big UM booster, basketball fan, longtime Memphian, and a former Promus and Holiday Inns CEO familiar with nine-digit numbers. But there were complications. Rose was long gone from Promus and Holiday Inns. He lived in Nashville, and his ex-wife, Gail Rose, was a leader of NBA Now. That left the hard questions to a few "naysayer" reporters and "mavericks" like Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, lawyer Duncan Ragsdale, and housewife Heidi Shafer.

The proponents prevailed, and that's history. But an interesting footnote appeared in the op-ed pages of The Commercial Appeal two weeks ago:

"The debate over moving the University of Memphis men's basketball team to the FedExForum has taken on an Alice in Wonderland quality in which intelligent and well-meaning people are uninformed, misinformed, disinformed, or simply shortsighted," wrote guest columnist Mike Rose.

Good start, or as we say in the news business, good lead.

Rose went on: "When many of the same politicians who are now struggling with the proposed move decided three years ago to give $250 million of the taxpayers' money for the benefit of private business, they doomed The Pyramid, rendered the university's $11 million investment worthless, and made the Tigers' home clearly second class."

Interesting points, powerfully expressed. No lowballing the numbers. No confusing "revenue streams." No hedging the taxpayers' role. No dodging the consequences. No hesitation about calling the Grizzlies a private business. And you have to wonder what might have happened if Mike Rose -- not a man to be bullied, dismissed as a crank, or awed by a trip to Indianapolis -- had stood in front of the City Council and County Commission and said that three years ago.

And what if Tom Jones, who played such a key part in the negotiations for former Mayor Rout, had, in his duties as speechwriter and head of public affairs, mentioned the "culture of entitlement" in county government that he described much later after he pleaded guilty to federal charges?

The point of all this is that much as we might wish it were so, there is rarely peace and harmony in local government. Cops don't instantly root out internal corruption. Taxpayers don't happily fork over $200 million. School budgets can't be reduced by cutting back on chalk and erasers and doing book reports. And the mayor's relationship with MLGW and the City Council was a ticking bomb.

Here's another thing about PR and public policy. Stage-managed "solutions" rarely work and sometimes backfire. The recent press conference in which Mayor Herenton brought representatives of the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis to the Hall of Mayors to announce a "deal" to move the Tigers to the FedExForum was brilliant PR. Jerry West was there. John Calipari was there. U of M President Shirley Raines and athletic director R. C. Johnson were there, all smiling for the camera. The only trouble was that somebody forgot to clue in the City Council and County Commission, which almost unanimously scuttled the deal -- for a mere $5 million over several years -- in short order.

A year ago, the City Council held a retreat in a lovely corporate setting under the guidance of the West-Rogers PR firm. Mayor Herenton dropped by to say a cordial hello and offer a few big ideas about school funding which were politely received and just as politely ignored. Things did not get better for the $82,000 spent on PR, and arguably they got worse. The mayor didn't attend this year's retreat.

A few years ago, some members of the County Commission and a handful of city and suburban school officials sat down in a series of meetings organized by then-Commissioner Buck Wellford and businessman Russell Gwatney. Their aim was to confront head-on the school funding formula that was and still is a major cause of the county's debt problems. There were PowerPoint presentations, outside mediators, research reports, and a roomful of good intentions. After a few meetings, however, attendance declined. It became clear that the committee lacked clout and the county system and the city system were not ready for major changes.

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton has spent his first 18 months in office trying to get the county on sound ethical and financial footing. In some ways, he is the anti-Herenton. He never loses his temper and rarely has a harsh word for anyone. He is seldom criticized in public and is on just about everyone's favorite-speaker list. He is against sprawl and reluctant to increase county property taxes. But beyond holding some seminars on smart growth, it isn't clear what he proposes as an alternative. He has talked about something that sounds like an impact fee on developers but hasn't spent much of his political capital on it yet. At budget time, he will have to be more specific.

Manipulating the Media

When daily newspapers ruled the roost, their traditional response to government PR was to treat it with skepticism if not disdain. The classic reporter's adage is "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Dailies and weeklies now fight for attention with four local television stations with round-the-clock newscasts, community and suburban papers, Internet blogs, news-as-entertainment programs like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, and growing indications of political apathy, such as election turnouts of 5 to 25 percent.

The Commercial Appeal is still the most comprehensive source of news in the Mid-South. There are early indications that editor Chris Peck is somewhat reversing a long circulation decline by reinventing the paper. He has beefed up coverage of sports, neighborhoods, and women's issues while cutting back on politics and state government. And he has opened the newspaper's news and editorial pages to more voices, replacing staff-produced copy with volunteer-submitted copy in some cases.

At a recent American Press Institute meeting, Peck suggested a new response to the problem of reporting staffs being spread thin during elections.

"We have to get over the notion that we have to do it all ourselves," he said, suggesting editors get volunteers at political events to compile summaries, freeing up staff to do meaningful, in-depth coverage.

"There are sources out there that are doing traditional coverage," he said. "Get it and use it. It's not doing the democracy any good to send out a reporter to write down regurgitation of what a candidate is saying in a staged event."

At our request, Peck elaborated in an e-mail to the Flyer.

"The struggle is to try to sort out what matters from all that is simply said or staged," he said. "[It] is compounded by the fact that a tremendous number of citizens just don't care very much about politics. This apathy is particularly strong among younger Americans."

Peck said newspapers should "rip up their traditional plans" for politics coverage. He suggested aligning with groups like the League of Women Voters, using online blogs to stimulate interest in politics among young people, and getting political reporters out of their ruts and into non-political settings.

In some cases, CA political reporters have gotten out of their ruts by getting out of the business. In less than two years, the paper has lost three state capitol reporters and a local political columnist. Peck said he has fired only one reporter, whom he did not name.

"We're strong, getting stronger, and dedicated to the task of becoming one of the nation's great 21st century newspapers," he said.

At the least, Peck is asking the right questions: How can newspapers and news in general remain relevant and profitable? The good old days of journalism weren't always so great. In a few weeks, the Gridiron Club will hold its annual show. It's a throwback to an era when reporters and politicians shared inside jokes and drinks. More often than we might admit, we traded a little news for a little slack. And Peck is correct that nobody cuts out a story about the inside stuff over at the finance committee and puts it up on their refrigerator door.

But the newspaper or newscast as kiosk is not the answer. Big stories are always complex and multi-sided. Somebody has to at least try to connect the dots, do the analysis -- flawed though it will often be -- ask the irreverent questions, point out the inconsistencies, and add up the costs.

Reporters, like democracy, are an imperfect invention but better than the alternative. There are apparently a lot of people out there who think otherwise. Many seem to think long stories are hard on the eyes, voting's a drag, the sports section is the only reason to read a paper, and politicians are either uniformly corrupt or incapable of original or enlightened thought. It would be a shame if, intentional or not, they should get aid and comfort from one of our own.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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