Faux Pas Or Standing Tall

January 4, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Crisis communications is a bread-and-butter business for local public relations firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson.

Experts say the fallout from SST’s own crisis — allegedly surreptitious involvement in trying to force a township near Traverse City to allow construction of a Meijer Inc. store — may be a reduction in business, but that could be tempered by the firm’s involvement in many other professional activities.

“The shadow is cast on their activities. There’s always that concern of what other things they might be involved in,” said Betty Prichard, a former public relations professor at Grand Valley State University. “The damage to a firm’s reputation does affect future clientele.”

Tim Penning, a GVSU public relations professor and author of a blog about public relations in Grand Rapids, was less certain of that ramification.

“That might be an issue; however, some will continue to hire Seyferth to do a variety of things not in the political arena,” Penning said last week. “They do a lot of legitimate PR and good things.”

According to newspaper reports, court records in Traverse City indicate that Meijer paid Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson $30,000 to orchestrate an unsuccessful 2004 recall election aimed at officials in Acme Township, where the Grand Rapids-based retailer wanted to build a new store. Meijer subsequently filed individual lawsuits against the township officials, and one of them countersued. The information about SST, also based in Grand Rapids, was revealed in court documents in the course of that countersuit, which was settled in December.

Penning said the issue isn’t about the actions of SST — writing letters to the editor, creating a Web site, crafting a strategy for the election — but the allegedly clandestine nature of the involvement of SST and Meijer in stumping for the recall. That allegation may be a violation of the Public Relations Society of America’s voluntary Code of Ethics, he said.

Ginny Seyferth, president of the company she founded in 1984, said last week the involvement of her company and of Meijer in the recall effort was well-known in the Grand Traverse area.

“We were publicly visible for almost a decade,” Seyferth said. “We worked side-by-side with supporting Meijer. It was very, very public.”

SST staff members attended public meetings and provided comments to Traverse City media on Meijer’s behalf, she said.

Seyferth said her company did not recruit Acme Township residents to lend their names to the recall campaign. “These are individuals who have been involved in their neighborhood for well over a decade,” she said.

SST’s activities regarding the Meijer proposal were no different than numerous other public issue efforts in which the company has been involved, she said. Seyferth said she believes her company did nothing in violation of the PRSA’s ethics code.

T. Michael Jackson, a retired public relations executive who lives in Traverse City, was adamant that any political involvement that wasn’t revealed as coming from a hired gun is ethically unsound.

“I just was very upset when I first saw this story in the local Record-Eagle here about doing some of those things, which, to me, would not pass the ethics test, in my opinion,” said Jackson, who served in several capacities with PRSA over his 50 years in the profession.

“There’s nothing wrong with writing letters for people and doing it as a basis for talking points, but to do it on the basis of having somebody use that as authoring that, and not coming forward and saying that this was written for me — to me, it’s just not the ethical way to do it,” said Jackson, who provided an opinion article on the topic to the Traverse City Record-Eagle last week.

“I think the firm should have come forward and said they were representing Meijer when they tried the recall campaign. I think it does say something about a firm or company when they do these kinds of things without being honest and open. It effects the organization in terms of what future clients might think of you, what future clients you might attract,” Jackson said.

He added that he has asked PRSA to look into the matter.

Pritchard said it’s possible that SST’s practices in the situation may be reviewed by PRSA. But with compliance to the ethics code, which was revised in 2000, being voluntary, she said, PRSA has little recourse in terms of sanctions.

“There are some sanctions that can be done, although there’s no teeth in it,” Pritchard said. “They can be reviewed by an ethics board, which would try to ascertain if there is actually any involvement,” she said, with the ultimate sanction a stripping of PRSA membership, which would not stop anyone from practicing public relations.

Penning, Pritchard and Jackson all said that they are concerned about the profession of public relations — which they contend already is misunderstood by the public — getting a black eye because of the Acme Township incident.

“If you look at what PR is all about, the whole idea is to help differing groups communicate with each other more effectively,” Pritchard said. “If you’re not upfront and honest and aboveboard with what you’re saying and what you’re doing, then you violate that trust, and it actually inhibits the communications process … it makes you ineffective.”

“Our firm has never been in a position where there has been any reason to or incentive of any kind to be anything other than completely transparent,” said Tim Wondergem, of Wondergem Consulting in Grand Rapids. “I believe that accrues benefit to public relations as a profession and as a practice. If your role is understood, I think it has more influence.”

Seyferth said she believes SST acted within the PRSA ethics code.

“So many in the industry and clients have said they appreciate the fact that we’re standing next to our client with this issue and not walking. We’re cooperating fully and we’re standing next to them,” Seyferth said.

For more information about PRSA’s Code of Ethics, see www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/index.html

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