Word was out yesterday that the Michigan Secretary of State's office is imposing record fines on Meijer for the Acme Township episode. The Grand Rapids Press went top of fold with a good sidebar of detail inside. The story also was picked up in the Associated Press and versions ran in the Traverse City Record Eagle, Detroit News and Chicago Tribune.
Anyone who still thinks all publicity is good is being conspicuously silent today.
I am most interested in the public relations aspect of this story. We learn in yesterday's Press report that Meijer's internal changes in response to the case involve oversight of hiring PR and legal counsel:
"The selection of outside legal and public relations firms now must be approved by VerHeulen and Stacie Behler, the retailer's vice president of communications, according to VerHeulen, who also is mayor of Walker. The two also must keep tabs on the work being done on behalf of Meijer."
I wondered about that last night. DIdn't these people approve hiring of outside firms before, and weren't they working right with them on the Acme situation? Seemed like a dodge.
But this morning we learn more. In an update story that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox is taking a pass on the case, we get more depth. For one, Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider still wants Cox to refer the case to him locally so he can pursue individuals. He claims corporations don't write checks and make decisions, people do. (FYI, since an 1898 Supreme Court case there has been precedent for corporations to be considered as persons). Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see which individuals he would target--Meijer officials or their legal and PR counsel.
To that end, we learn in this morning's article (posted to MLive to beat the broadcasters, by the way) "Meijer no longer is working with the Grand Rapids public relations firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc. and the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright, which ran two campaigns on its behalf, Meijer President Mark Murray said." Murray does the noble thing and accepts responsibility for the work of any consultants who represented them. As for her part, Ginny Seyferth is nonplussed, telling the Press that SST is available to help Meijer in the future.
So, Meijer pays the fine, accepts the blame, says they will pay closer attention to what their PR consultants do on their behalf. But the fines center on state law regarding disclosure of funding in political campaigns. What is not yet clear, and probably never will be, is whether or not the pro-Meijer group of citizens was organic and legitimate or a front group, used deceptively by SST and/or Meijer, either consciously or not.
What is more clear, sadly, is the bad impression the general public will have about PR as a result of this episode. It's darn hard getting people to stop saying "just PR" or "merely PR" or "PR stunt." It's harder still when anecdotal evidence supports these pejorative characterizations of a profession that is supposed to be about the transparent building and maintenance of mutual relationships in the public interest.