September/October 1992 | Contents
IS THE PRESS ANY MATCH FOR POWERHOUSE P.R.?
Check out the new and improved devices the big Washington firms have come up with for controlling the agenda
by Alicia Mundy
Mundy is national correspondent for Regardie's magazine.
The use and abuse of journalists by p.r. flacks and lobbyists has long been a fact of life in Washington. In the past couple of years, though, media manipulation has been taken to a new level. How have the spinmeisters come to play such an important part in our political life, and why do the media go along with them?
Media manipulation has evolved considerably since the days when a well-connected flack could place a story simply by calling up a columnist or editor. Power has been diluted among the government and lobbyists, GOP and Democratic factions, and an array of interest groups. And the rise of new media outlets, together with increased competition among Washington bureaus of many papers, has made it almost impossible for a single media connection to decide whether a story lives or dies. As a high-ranking Hill and Knowlton executive said, "You can't just show up with a bottle of Wild Turkey and get your topic on the hearing schedule anymore. You have to work with staffers, and you have to be more aware of alliances and petty fights on the Hill. It's just not easy." To which a former H&K media specialist adds, "You can't just pick up a phone and call Scotty Reston and get a story out, because there are no Scotty Restons."
The '90s bag of tricks includes such time-honored ploys as using media foibles and competition to keep a story alive, as well as "media assistance" and "image enhancement" -- slicker versions of the apocryphal call to Reston. It also includes a new emphasis on keeping a client's name out of the news.
And then there's the New Aggressiveness, consisting of threats veiled and unveiled. Hill and Knowlton's Bob Gray began advising controversial clients several years ago that they should "Go after the little lies in a big way." In other words, attack any and all flaws in a reporter's story, then use them to discredit the whole piece. His philosophy, as summed up by clients, is: if you get them to back down on the minor details they've screwed up on, they're unlikely to fight you on the major ones.
There's also a new and worrisome emphasis on official forums to jump-start a news story when you can't get it launched independently in the media. Though reporters interviewed insisted that no one can create a story if it isn't genuine "news," a good lobbyist can make news happen by putting it in the right mouths. At least one crucial congressional hearing on Kuwait in the fall of 1990 was prompted by H&K, according to Gray, because of concerns within the Kuwaiti royal family that Americans just weren't "upset enough" by the invasion by Iraq (see sidebar, page 28). As foreign countries keep hiring American lobbyists to handle diplomatic issues in Washington, you can expect to see more "official stories" on the front page and the evening news that have a hidden agenda.
And there's the latest wrinkle in p.r. -- "DeKeatingization," a combination of vaccination and crop dusting that allows a public official to do what he wants to do (such as voting his conscience on an issue), without appearing to be contaminated by impure motives (such as money).
Oh, a few p.r. firms say they're trying something completely different: the New Honesty. "It's something we recommend to corporate clients, especially on environmental and health issues," says a media consultant, as though suggeting a new hem length or hair color. "In some cases, we really push directness with the media, openness. And," he adds, "it sometimes disarms them. When they think you're being up front, they'll let you tell your story your way."
It's a minefield out there for reporters, and the good news is that many of the lobbyists interviewd insisted that we Washington reporters have gradually become sophisticated, less likely to fall for a spin. But if that's really true, a hell of a lot of flacks are making a hell of a lot of money in Washington for doing nothing.
Hill and Knowlton is not the biggest firm spin-doctoring in the capital these days, but it's the first company that comes to mind when media practitioners and observers discuss how news is shaped and how the Washington press corps helps out. The bookends at H&K's Washington operation (the main office is in New York) are Bob Gray and Frank Mankiewicz.
Perhaps the most successful campaign Gray has run is the Richard Nixon Rehabilitation Campaign, on which he's left as many fingerprints as a five-year-old on a jelly jar. It's no accident that Nixon the Monster has become Nixon the Elder Statesman, appearing in your living room in the Sunday op-ed pages, on Nightline, before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and at a dinner at the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Ask Gray who got 500 foreign affairs writers to believe they were among the "50" elites selected to receive Nixon's comments on aid to the Soviet Union, and he will only smile. Ask who helped arrange the Washington affair at which President George Bush gave his imprimatur to the Nixon resurrection, and Gray's smile grows wider.
An inside look at a "classic propaganda campaign" by Hill and Knowlton was recently provided by The Daily Record, a business and legal newspaper in Maryland, in the form of a memorandum -- one of several confidential documents relesed in court as the result of a lawsuit over the installation of asbestos in public buildings in Baltimore. The memo was drawn up in 1983, but the p.r. strategy outlined in it is timeless.
Representing U.S. Gypsum, which for years had used asbestos in some products, H&K advised Gypsum that "the spread of media coverage must be stopped at the local level and as soon as possible." One focus of this strategy was to plant stories on op-ed pages "by experts sympathetic to the company's point of view." The plan included placing articles attesting to the safety of asbestos.
Although a Gypsum spokesman told The Daily Record that the company did not implement the advice, court papers show that Gypsum planted op-ed pieces in papers in Baltimore and Detroit. An interoffice Gypsum memo reads: "Attached is an excellent series run over four days, beginning March 3  in the Detroit News. Our consultant, Jack Kinney, very actively fed much of this information to the special writer, Michael Bennett. SBA is exploring ways of more widely circulating these articles." (As recently as June 30, 1991, the Baltimore Sun published an article by Bennett which claimed that the risk of asbestos exposure was comparable to "smoking one half a cigarette in a lifetime.")
The memo further recommended that Gypsum set up an industry group to handle media inquiries and "take the heat from the press and industry critics," and suggested that Gypsum should enlist scientists and doctors as "independent experts" to counter claims that asbestos is a health risk. "It can then position the problem as a side issue that is being seized on by special interests and those out to further their own causes," the twenty-five-page memo continued.
"The media and other audiences important to U.S. Gypsum should ideally say, 'Why is all this furor being raised about this product? We have a non-story here."
Ideally, such articles would not only have influenced the public, but would also have worked their way into court exhibits in the lawsuit and swayed the jury. But this past May, U.S. Gypsum and the Asbestospray Corporation were ordered to pay the City of Baltimore $ 23 million for compensatory and punitive damages.
H&K executives call the strategy outlined in the 1983 memo "old-fashioned," but recent H&K blitzkreigs show it's still state of the art.
Asked for a success story to demonstrate the effectiveness of H&K, Mankiewicz proferred two: the packaging of the movie JFK, and the repackaging of the Wall Street law firm Kaye, Scholer. In this case, there's no memo; just Mankiewicz.
As director Oliver Stone was finishing filming JFK last spring, an article by Washington Post reporter George Lardner, Jr., appeared, fiercely attacking Stone's adaptation of history for his movie. That fall, a New York Times piece by Bernard Weinraub reported that "Warner Brothers . . . has taken the unusual step of hiring Frank Mankiewicz, the Washington press-relations executive and former campaign manager for Robert F. Kennedy, to promote the film and seek support in the news media for Mr. Stone. Last week," the November 7, 1991, piece continued, "Mr. Stone flew to Washington and had dinner with representatives from The New York Times, The Washington Post, People magazine, and CBS." Mankiewicz coached Stone in writing and, suddenly, thoughtful pieces by Stone began springing up like dandelions in bluegrass all over the nation's op-ed pages. (Sound familiar?)
Did Stone himself pen those pieces? "Sure, he did," Mankiewicz hrrmmpps. Then he winks. "Most of them."
If a journalist had the gall to question a scene from the upcoming movie (versions of the script were floating around the country), Stone pounced on him with a full-fledged attack, out of proportion to the comment by the reporter ("Go after the little lies in a big way"). He and Mankiewicz fought back on every negative article, even threatening to take out a full-page ad in The Washington Post if the paper wouldn't print Stone's rebuttal to an unfavorable article -- a concession executive editor Benjamin Bradlee had opposed. Ultimately the Post printed an edited form of the rebuttal. "We couldn't let anything go unchallenged," Mankiewicz explains.
Then he pitted Newsweek and Time against each other, convincing each magazine that it had an exclusive. Both responded with overkill -- arranging cover stories, historical perspectives by veteran reporters, and later, in the case of Time, a contempo essay by Ron Rosenbaum on America's fascination with JFK assassination theories. The ploy worked beautifully up to the last minute, when Time had to change its cover for its exclusive Gorbachev interview. "But they gave it a big line on the cover anyway," Mankiewicz says, smiling.
When the film was about to premiere, Mankiewicz arranged meetings with influential congressman such as Lee Hamilton of Indiana and Louis Stokes of Ohio. He also arranged a few cozy dinners in Georgetown for friends in politics and movies. After screenings of the film for selected journalists and others, he made the legendary recluse Stone available for questions. Finally, he helped to get Stone invited as a speaker at the National Press Club.
"Frank just knows how Washington works," Stone says. "He got us into the right audience, got the movie presented as a serious historical statement. He knows how to work the press establishment here, and got us a fair hearing with the right congressmen. I think he's a genius."
The second success story cited by Mankiewicz in an interview in May was what he saw as the repositioning of the Wall Street firm Kaye, Scholer as victim, not perpetrator, in the S&L scandal, Kaye, Scholer had represented Charles Keating in his S&L dealings with the Lincoln thrift in Arizona. Earlier this year, Kaye, Scholer was forced by the Office of Thrift Supervision to pay $ 41 million and to bench its senior partner because the firm had allegedly helped Keating conceal his financial dealings from Lincoln's shareholders. Kaye, Scholar called in Hill and Knowlton, and soon pieces contending that the firm had been wronged began to crop up in legal journals and on newspaper op-ed pages.
"Kaye, Scholer was a mugging. We have shown that they have been unfairly attacked by the Justice Department and victimized by the threat of publicity," says Mankiewicz, handing me a two-inch stack of articles defending the law firm.
All this is designed to "target our audience," which he defines as other law firms, accounting firms, and potential clients.
It's not a bad scheme, says media reporter Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. "All these op-ed pieces may not save the day at the time, but they can change the debate or raise the possibility of another side of the story, which may come back later to a client's benefit."
Meanwhile, Mankiewicz tells me, there's more on the way. "And there's a piece coming out in The American Lawyer soon," he says, smiling.
Weeks later, the new issue of The American Lawyer hits the stands. On the cover, inch-high red type declares: U.S. V. KAYE, SCHOLER: THEY GOT WHAT THEY DESERVED.
Asked about this unexpected setback, "So what?" Mankiewicz snarls. "I hear they've got an article coming out saying the Rodney King verdict was justified. Here's my quote: 'The American Lawyer supports police brutality in all forms -- from the Justice Department to the Los Angeles police.'"
MAKING A FEDERAL CASE
"Op-ed plants are bullshit," say a chorus of Hill and Knowlton competitors, many of whom cut their teeth working with Mankiewicz. The "new" media management doesn't waste time with opinion articles read by "five people drinking coffee in a newsroom," as one consultant puts it.
"The real work today is done behind the scenes on issues," says a former H&K executive. "You have people of substance going to regulators and assistant secretaries," he explains. "Then you notify the press in advance that the government is taking a certain action, and why, and who you represent, and why your client deserved to have this regulation changed.
"You make your client's story a government story, showing how the government's action -- by now a quiet fait accompli -- has not only helped your client, but is good for the people. That's how you get the story out the right way in the media," he says, smiling, before going on to cite several environmentally incorrect clients who, thanks to adept manipulation, survived encounters with the feds, the media, the "greenies," even a sing-in by aging rocker Jackson Browne.
The executive reviewed the Gypsum asbestos situation. "Listen, the client's alibi was that asbestos isn't bad. Asbestos is one product that is uniformly feared, maybe more than cigarettes. You don't do the op-ed drill."
What he would have recommended would have included more elements of lobbying: "Admit the error. Talk to city officials privately. Explain your financial situation and offer the cheapest way out to remove the stuff. This avoids the costly suit. Then tell the world what a good-neighbor company you are and come back for another contract."
H&K, like other large firms, has tried to adjust to the differences between the two functions -- p.r. and lobbying -- as they are defined in Washington. On such controversial issues as Kuwait and JFK, for example, it was faced with the choice between targeting the media directly or using official channels to spin the story and then -- as in the case of Kuwait -- going after the media. The choice will determine how the press will play the story. Meanwhile, with Washington firms now pushing foreign policy agendas for China, Italy, Haiti, and many other countries, the Capitol Hill approach has gained more acceptance.
"Using Congress is an old tack, but I've never seen it done so openly as I did with H&K and Kuwait," says a former White House official who lobbies, but does not flack, in Washington. "What astounds me is that the press just went along with it. In this case, it was a legitimate story. But it makes you wonder about the other stories that get built up the same way."
The press often has little choice. When a representative or senator calls a press conference or a hearing, somebody has to cover it.
DE-KEATINGIZATION %As Mankiewicz recalls, "A member of Congress told me he'd support me on [business legislation that would benefit a client] if I'd de-Keatingize him first. I didn't know what he meant, but he explained he didn't want his constituents, especially the press, saying he was supporting it just because he'd gotten contributions from one of the parties involved."
The object of "de-Keatingizing" someone, Mankiewicz explains, is to make your target, the person you want to support your issue publicly, invulnerable to negative press coverage. "You have to make the issue bomb-proof. 'De-Keatingize,' meaning Get rid of any taint. You have to give your guy the ammunition to show the press that the issue he's backing is inherently something the public -- specifically your target's constituents -- wants." An easy way to do that, Mankiewicz says, is to produce a favorable poll on the issue. The best recent example of this tactic, says a key member of the White House team that oversaw the Clarence Thomas nomination, was the handling of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The senators found it a lot easier to support Thomas once they'd seen USA Today polls showing that a majority of African-Americans approved of Thomas's nomination. "We used media polls -- which appear unbiased -- to give the senators their out on the matter. And the senators used the polls to explain their votto the media," this source says.
"The polls de-Keatingized Thomas," Mankiewicz sums up.
THE HERNIA STRATAGEM
This is a new technique not currently taught in p.r. texts. Mankiewicz has used it to considerable effect in response to questions about H&K's representation of Kuwait and BCCI. If you interview him in person about such issues he will chase you with a six-inch-thick pile of clips, rebuttals, and op-ed pieces showing what a bum rap H&K took -- and he won't let you leave until you've promised to take the clips and read them all.
Don't knock this. This past May, Daniel Schorr found himself on the receiving end of a Mankiewicz missive on Kuwait. In a lengthy piece for The Washington Post titled "See It Not: True Confessions of a Lifetime in TV Journalism," Schorr had referred -- in a single sentence -- to "public relations 'video releases' or outright hoaxes, like the tearful recital of atrocities in Kuwait by the carefully coached daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington" -- whose appearance at a congressional hearing was arranged by Hill and Knowlton (see sidebar, page 28). Mankiewicz responded by sending a pile of clips that persuaded Schorr that he was in error in using the word "hoax."
"I sent a letter to the Post correcting myself, and a copy to Frank," Schorr says. "He called and asked if he could circulate it." Shortly thereafter (and well before the Post ran it), the letter became a lead story in a p.r. newsletter, which benefitted Hill and Kowlton if no one else. "I think it was cheap," says Schorr.
By forcing the journalist to retreat on one detail, the counterattack served to blunt the point of Schorr's original article -- the lack of suspicion among the media about staged "news."
LOBBING BACK THE LOBBY CHARGE In its handling of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, Hill and Knowlton had more at stake than the bank's reputation; it had its own. After former Customs Commissioner William von Raab testified in 1991 that "influence peddlers" had prevented federal regulators and prosecutors from moving in on BCCI, H&K went on the offensive. The firm was registered at the Justice Department as a lobbyist for BCCI from 1988 to March 1990 and had taken charge of blocking any negative publicity about an affiliated institution, First American Bank of Washington.
In response to charges that H&K had "lobbied" for BCCI, Mankiewicz resorted to the hoary ploy "The Public Testimonial"; he wrung from von Raab a carefully phrased letter (which now hangs behind his desk) stating, "I do not have any information that Mr. Gray or you spoke to any official in either our federal government's executive or legislative branch on behalf of BCCI."
True. According to Mankiewicz, all of the work on behalf of BCCI done by H&K was handled by offices in London and Tampa. True, too, lobbying, in the technical Washington sense, means that someone officially registered as a firm's representative officially visited a member of Congress on behalf of that client. Of course, if the p.r. person mentioned the client over dinner, got a few pieces placed in the Post, or placed a few calls to the White House, that wouldn't officially count as lobbying.
In fact, when Regardie's magazine, my employer, was going to press in April 1990 with a cover story called "Who Really Owns First American Bank" (about BCCI, Clark Clifford, and First American), we were deluged with calls from Mankiewicz on behalf of First American and copies of letters to congressmen denouncing the story. Still, he can legitimately wave von Raab's letter like a vaccination certificate to ward off an outbreak of skeptical reporters.
THE PREEMPTIVE STRIKE
"It's more common now for p.r. firms to try to stop a negative story before it's in print," says The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "Correcting a story afterwards is rarely as effective as shutting it down, or turning it around a little."
One increasingly popular way of aborting a story is to launch an ad hominum attack on the reporter. An H&K executive who insisted on anonymity confirmed that one of the standard procedures these days when a client anticipates negative press involves digging up the reporter's previous stories, then alleging that the reporter has already shown malice towards the subject. A former H&K executive provides an example. He says that when Time was preparing its cover story on the Church of Scientology, H&K employees dug up the reporter's previous work, trying to document disputes between the reporter and church leaders. In April, the church filed a $ 416 million libel suit against Time, Time Warner, and reporter Richard Behar, claiming among other things that Time had assigned a biased reporter to write the story.
Other tactics include dredging up the number of corrections that can be traced to a reporter as proof of negligence-to-be. Or alleging that the reporter has some conflict of interest in connection with the subject.
"Like the little-lies approach, the anti-reporter tactics are all red herrings," says the former H&K media specialist, who insisted on anonymity. "But if you make enough noise about them, you can make an editor in Washington think twice about how hard he'll let the reporter write the story. And that's your goal."
THE NEW HONESTY
Public relations firms "always say, It could have been worse without our help, when a p.r. problem blows up in their faces," says an H&K competitor. "And that way you can never call their bluff and say, Prove it."
But in the case of United Way of America, failure to accept Hill and Knowlton's advice clearly did make matters worse. Last December, Washington reporters began calling to ask about the UWA president's travel, expenses, subsidiary commercial for-profit ventures, and his personal liaisons. United Way hired Mankiewicz to field "inquiries." He in turn urged UWA to hire a respected D.C. investigative firm to look into UWA itself. The investigators looked, gasped, and gave Mankiewicz the bad news: the allegations were true. The top echelon of UWA had been living in the lap of luxury on donors' dollars.
Mankiewicz urged the board of directors and UWA president William Aramony to follow the simplest rule of p.r.: Tell the Truth. Tell it All. Tell it Now.
But, informed sources says, Mankiewicz was overruled by the board and Aramony, who weren't prepared to let the public know what was happening. The result was that when the UWA stories broke in February, affiliates across the country responded with devastating effect by withholding their dues.
"We could have controlled the story, given it our spin, if they'd let us," says Mankiewicz.
"THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD CLIENT"
It's fine for Alan Dershowitz to insist on the innocence of some of his more notorious clients, but media types wonder how lobbyists and flacks justify plugging the causes of some of theirs.
It wasn't always like this. Loet Velmans, president of Hill and Knowlton from 1978 to 1986, remembers when the firm had the "luxury" of turning down clients. "Let's call it pragmatism," he says. "But we wouldn't take on clients who would upset our most important people -- our employees -- or other clients." He cited the tobacco industry, which H&K dropped as a client in the 1960s. "We couldn't do anything for them because they wouldn't take our advice -- to research what smoking would do to you, and to invest in cancer research. They couldn't publicly do anything to suggest the link between cigarettes and cancer, and it was useless to represent them."
Velmans also recalls an era when H&K refused unsavory political clients: Ferdinand Marcos, South Africa.
Nowadays the list of foreign clients of prominent firms such as H&K; Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly; Van Kloberg & Associates; Neill & Company; and Sawyer/Miller (see sidebar, page 32) includes Zaire, Peru, El Salvador, Colombia, Kenya, and Saddam Hussein. With a good spin, Eva Peron could have been packaged as a victim of sexual harassment.
"Things have changed now. The competition is so fierce, hardly anyone turns away paying customers," Velmans says. Mankiewicz wishes that some had been turned away. He was infuriated when he learned in 1990 that H&K had been hired by the Catholic bishops to push the church's anti-abortion position. "That's what they have priests for," he says. The controversy briefly raised the issues of legitimacy in clientele, but last year an executive told the Washington staff at H&K, "We'd represent Satan if he paid."
Maybe, but they may have to be careful what they say about him. Last year, H&K was sued by investors in BCCI; plaintiffs claimed H&K had portrayed the bank as pure. The suit was dismissed, but it raised questions of how far a p.r. firm can go with a controversial client.
"If asbestos is safe, China is a democracy, and BCCI is clean, how can you believe these guys on anything?" asks a fierce-featured news show host who doesn't like H&K but often goes along with its spin, like the rest of us. "There should be more backlash. "
What steps can the media take to, if not lash back, at least make it clear that the emergence of certain issues reflects the handiwork of a spinmeister? Kurtz of The Washington Post believes that more stories exposing how a p.r. firm has been brought in to effect policy on a grand scale will help to alert the public to possible manipulation.
It's a warm and fuzzy sentiment. But as long as we need stories, and as long as we rely on outsiders to do the legwork, and as long as we're afraid of being beaten, says a newsmagazine editor in Washington, we are going to give spinmeisters more credence than we should.
There's some good news: "You won't get a story placed by having a flack call a reporter anymore," says Kurtz. "Most reporters would prefer to hear from the source or subject themselves."
"You are your best spokesperson," says Mankiewicz. "There's an American prejudice against having someone else field your questions. That's starting to come into it more."
So how can Mankiewicz charge $ 350 an hour for doing what he does? "Somebody has to do it," he says.
As for the bottom line: "Can you manipulate the Washington media?" Mankiewicz muses, "Can I? Well, if I could I wouldn't tell you."
"And I can't," he hrrmmpps. And winks.