Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Meijer-y Christmas

Retailers like extra attention around the holidays, but Meijer probably could have done without the front page attention in the Grand Rapids Press on Christmas Day.

The Press follows an extensively reported piece in the Traverse City Record Eagle about Meijer's "secret plan" to recall Acme Township officials who were opposed to a Meijer store there.

The allegations are that Meijer--with the help of local PR firm Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson--had strategic plans to remove the local leaders who stood in their way. The Record Eagle reports that SST "crafted recall language, devised election strategy, wrote campaign literature, and used local residents as figureheads in the recall." All of that is fine PR work, if it's done above board. If these local residents known as the Acme Recall Committee were a 'front group'--i.e., put forward as if they came together by themselves and were not organized and supported by SST and Meijer--then that would be a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. Apparently, SST staffers ghost wrote letters to the editor and other materials that local residents presented as their own. To be sure, politicians employ speechwriters and there are other examples of individuals seeking help to express themselves. But these activities as part of an election campaign smell of an unethical front group strategy.

The larger trouble seems to be that Meijer never reported its financial contributions toward the recall effort. This is in violation not just of voluntary professional ethics codes, but of enforceable state law. On this one, Meijer's face is as red as its logo.

Most troubling to me is that SST and Meijer officials say very little. They refuse comment or are unavailable. This usually implies guilt in the court of public opinion. If what they did is not unethical, they should say so and say why. Meijer President Mark Murray does comment in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press, but only to say they will cooperate with the state investigation (as if they have a choice) and that he didn't know about this until recently (even though he was hired presumably for his talents at managing large organizations). Meanwhile, there is nothing about this issue on the news section of Meijer's web site. One would think if there is an explanation or defense of Meijer's actions, they would offer one. The fact that they don't speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, local leaders in Acme Township--all of whom retained their seats--offer a troubling and heartfelt commentary. As one said: "The democratic process in a little township has been undermined by a corporation's millions."

Indeed, for PR to be called a profession, it must show it serves our democratic society in a positive way. Engaging in secretive plans in this case seems more self-serving, and by that measure not professional. There is a difference between advocating a point of view openly versus secretive manipulation. The trouble is, the PR profession takes another hit to its reputation in this case. We should all be upset about this--especially those of us who take seriously the PRSA Code of Ethics sixth provision, to "enhance the profession" and strengthen the public's trust in public relations. That did not happen in Traverse City recently.


Anonymous said...

What's troubling is that this is the third time Ginny Seyferth's firm has orchestrated "citizen groups." They were behind a "citizen group" for Meijer back when they were trying to build Knapp's Corner and they did a similar thing for Taubman, which owned Woodland Mall, to oppose Rivertown Crossings construction. They never disclosed their involvement until the GR Press brought it to light.

The PRSA Code of Ethics is pretty clear. It notes in the disclosure section of the code:

A member shall: Be honest and accurate in all communications. Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible. Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented. Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.Avoid deceptive practices.

Examples of Improper Conduct Under this Provision: Front groups: A member implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.

Someone should revoke Ginny Seyferth's PRSA membership and kick her employee off the West Michigan PRSA board.

Anonymous said...

I very much appreciated your commentary on the Meijer fiasco, especially from the PR ethics point of view. When those of us that have been so close to the issue for many years hear from someone such as yourself with a fresh point of view, it is most encouraging.

An Acme resident

Anonymous said...

As a former reporter in the Grand Rapids area, I often questioned the ethics of SST's business practices. They pioneered the abuse of embargoes to create unfair advantages for some organizations and promoted an 'us vs. them' philosophy of media relations.
Ironically, I'm told they do a great deal of work in crisis management...
This is kind of firm that truly gives PR a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Seyferth's use of front groups has a numbing effect on reporters, elected officials and the public at large.

The next time a geninue grass roots group actively engaged in a hot issue has something to say, our collective reaction will be to roll our eyes and say: "Riiiiiight...."

The irony is that I'm sure Seyferth and Meijer leaders thought they were being bold and edgy. In fact they were just being arrogant and clumsy -- and potentially criminal. Meijer is now paying a steep price.

disillusioned in Acme said...

Meijer's philosophy stated on their website," a business based on the simple philosophy that led Hendrik Meijer to start his business in 1934—take care of your customers, team members and your community" has been lost somewhere down the line by the Meijer progeny who now run the company.
Here in Acme, we residents know full well the impact of those decisions. The deceit of secretly funding the recall campaign is bad enough. The Meijer SLAPP suits against our township and personally against our board members just to intimidate them has caused the township to lose it's liability insurance and our well respected supervisor to quit last August after two years of personal Meijers lawsuits.
Our township treasurer, Bill Boltres, had the wherewithal to countersue and found that over the years Meijers had filed over 30 intimidating SLAPP suits against other township officials in other communities. THATS why the mediation board recommended a three million dollar settlement. Hank Meijer certainly had to know about those suits. Meijers settled with Boltres the day before the Traverse City Record Eagle story last week after being told in advance of the impending story.

Today's Record Eagle cites Hank Meijer signed a letter to run as an ad that criticized Acme township elected officials just days before the recall election. So much for his lack of knowledge.

Over the last 40 years I have been a loyal Meijers customer. They have great prices, wonderful produce, and a hard working staff. Our Traverse City Store has been a community meeting place where you meet friends shopping on a regular basis. Most Acme residents looked forward to Meijers coming.
With all the lying and deceit you have to wonder where the Meijer philosophy went wrong. If it can happen our community it can happen in yours.

Roberta said...

The deception by SST on behalf of Meijer is not only unethical by PRSA standards, but by most professional and personal standards. Integrity in the PR profession is the most important aspect of our work - without it we are nothing.
(I said this to a group of PRSSA students at a forum at GVSU last fall and I'm darn glad I did).