- Special Projects
The country is awash with public relations professionals, people — often former reporters — whose job it is to manage the flow of information so that the public, or targeted sectors of the public, end up with a favorable view of their clients and their actions, decisions, or products.
In sheer numbers, there are many more jobs in public relations than in the news business, both locally and nationally.
This means that there are far more resources poured into spinning the news in favor of corporate clients than in critically testing the “most favorable light” claims spread through press releases and whispered tips by those who get paid to make sure the news comes out right.
There were 202,530 public relations specialists employed in the U.S. last year, compared to just 43,630 reporters, according to a recent Pew Research Report which analyzed federal jobs data. And the trend is increasingly in the favor of PR. The number of reporters has fallen by 17 percent since 2004, while the ranks of PR specialists has risen by 22 percent, the Pew report found.
Hawaii seems to mirror the country as a whole. There were 780 public relations specialists employed in Hawaii during 2013, compared to 180 “reporters and correspondents,” according to Bureau of Labor Statistics and the state Department of Labor. That’s a ratio of 4.3 jobs in public relations for every journalism job.
And as the number of reporters dwindles, the public relations increases its influence in the way we understand the world around us.
An unusual look behind the scenes of a corporate public relations campaign has been provided by an ongoing class action lawsuit pitting homeowners in a major planned community in Ewa against the developer of the project.
The dispute involves Haseko’s decision in mid-2011 to reverse a decades-old plan to build thousands of homes, as well as hotels and shopping areas, around a man-made, “world-class” marina on the Ewa plain.
The development, originally referred to as the Ewa Marina, was taken over by Haseko in 1988. A decade later, the company started selling the first of some 2,400 homes in Ocean Pointe, followed by nearly 900 units planned at Ka Makana, now part of what Haseko is calling the Hoakalei Resort.
There was talk that the America’s Cup might be held at the marina in the future.
Although Haseko had promoted the marina as the centerpiece of its project, and spent millions of dollars in the planning and permitting process, with millions more dredging the area, economic conditions in 2011 prompted the company to revise its plans by substituting a “recreational lagoon” for the marina.
The company said the change was necessary because the marina could not be completed in a timely manner due to legal challenges, permitting delays, and changed financial conditions. And Haseko said that as long as the marina was in limbo, it was unable attract hotel companies necessary to complete the long-stalled resort section of the development.
But homeowners who had been enticed by the promise of resort living with access to a private marina, believe they paid a premium for their homes to assure future marina access and the glamour of an upscale marina lifestyle.
Haseko’s problem was to spin the elimination of the marina as a positive new direction for their overall plan, and to mute opposition voices.
Numerous emails, correspondence and other internal documents that were produced in response to subpoenas and included in the case file lay out the company’s plan to manage fallout from its decision.
By the middle of 2011, according to the documents, the company was secretly planning for the changeover, while publicly maintaining that no such decision had been made. The first step was to ask Becker Communications Inc., Haseko’s selected public relations contractor, to institute a 60-day moratorium on any social media posts that mentioned the marina. Later, after the lagoon plan was publicly announced, this would turn into an online search-and-destroy operation to eliminate all previous online references to the marina.
The company then turned to Earthplan, a company owned by Berna Senelly, a community planner who had previously been tapped to build community support for the marina project beginning in the 1990s. She had been credited with successfully identifying and organizing boaters, preservationists, businesses, and residents to testify before government agencies in support of the company’s plans, and Haseko hoped she could succeed once again.
A draft of Senelly’s plan for managing the marina-lagoon swap was submitted in September 2011, and would serve as the basis for the public relations campaign to follow.
The overall goal was clear: “The purpose of the community relations program is to facilitate a constructive grass roots dialogue that will result in support and ‘community ownership’ of proposed changes.”
The idea was to first identify “ambassadors,” those who could be relied on the support the project, including employees, consultants, and “closest friends” and “trustworthy networks.” Ambassadors would then be sent out to “advocate HASEKO’s interests with consistent information and commitment.”
“Allies” were identified as those who would cooperate with Haseko “to achieve their own agendas.”
“Beneficiaries” could be brought on board if they saw the project was in their own interests through corporate-sponsored community benefits, social, recreational, and cultural, and the promise of jobs and economic development. Canoe clubs could be promised a protected lagoon for training, and businesses could be enticed with the prospect of new opportunities.
For example, in one email a Haseko official muses about how to discuss a waterfront activity center that would be part of the lagoon plan. “…my initial thought was to mention looking for someone to operate the activity center et al as a subtle way to remind people about the possible employment/business opportunities created by the project.”
Elected officials could, in the plans words, “be allies, beneficiaries or adversaries,” and the company would seek ways to show them that its lagoon proposal “is in the best interests of their constituents.”
And finally there were the expected opponents of the lagoon.
“The target outcome for this group is to monitor their efforts, decrease their sphere of influence and neutralize their efforts,” the plan proposed.
The plan took a hard look at the changes Haseko was proposing, how they might be perceived by opponents, and how the company could present them in the best light.
For example, Earthplan warned that dropping the marina could be seen as “a betrayal to boaters and other ocean enthusiasts who historically supported the project,” and opened the company to the charge that it cynically used the marina plan to “trick the community into supporting land use changes.”
That could be countered, according to the plan, by demonstrating the lagoon would enable the company “to complete the overall planned community faster than completing marina (basic footprint established, entitlements, environmental challenges, cost, financing),” and could maintain the “water orientation” while diversifying potential uses of the area around the lagoon.
Becker Communications is Hawaii’s third largest public relations company, according to a recent ranking by Pacific Business News, with clients that include Kraft Foods, Aloha Petroleum, Waikiki Aquarium, Reyn Spooner, and Hospice Hawaii, in addition to Haseko.
Emails and correspondence between Haseko and Becker, disclosed as part of the ongoing lawsuit, show that Becker did the usual wordsmithing in support of Haseko’s marina-to-lagoon transition, often going through multiple drafts of proposed articles or talking points before allowing the final product to go public, and finding multiple venues for the information, including community or corporate newsletters, magazine articles, newspaper stories, press releases, and social media.
Becker aims for a constant flow of positive media to make the public, and public officials, more amenable to its messages.
In broad outlines, Becker plays several key roles, often serving as Haseko’s alter ego.
Developing the message. Whether an initial draft begins with Becker or Haseko, emails show articles, press releases, even specific responses to reporter’s questions are passed back and forth for comment and revision until a final wording is agreed on. This often takes multiple passes.
Controlling the message. Becker also serves as a buffer and gatekeeper to insulate the company and its corporate officers from the news media. Reporters who request information from Haseko are routinely routed to Becker, where they are asked to put their questions in writing, the email records show. This allows the two companies to sanitize their answers to reporters and conceal relevant information, often even fine-tuning wording to avoid hints that could lead a reporter to ask other critical questions.
Leveraging the news. In stage-managing the announcement of the new lagoon plan, Becker approached Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Andrew Gomes with the offer of an exclusive story based on advance access to details of the change. In exchange for the exclusive, Becker asked that the story be scheduled to appear on a Sunday. The story then was used as a backdrop for a press conference scheduled on the same day.
Despite being offered the exclusive, Gomes was asked to put questions in writing, which allowed Haseko and Becker to fine tune their responses. He complied, as did other reporters mentioned in emails during the period.
The lone exception was Civil Beat’s Sophie Cocke, who “politely declined” when asked to submit written questions, the emails show. Becker reported back to Haseko: “…she prefers talking to someone in person.”
To his credit, Gomes pressed for financial and technical details the company preferred to keep under wraps. Haseko stonewalled.
“We don’t usually release technical info because doing so provides ammunition to the opposition to criticize,” Haseko’s Sharene Tam told Becker. It was left to the PR firm to deliver the bad news that the information would not be forthcoming.
Putting words in their mouths. Becker was central to developing “talking points” not only for Haseko representatives to follow, but for public officials as well.
Records disclosed in the lawsuit show Becker prepared talking points for Sen. Will Espero and then-state Rep. Kymberly Pine, now a member of the Honolulu City Council.
The “Talking points for Sen. Will Espero regarding New Vision for Hoakalei” began with a statement: “Haseko’s decision to transform the marina into a lagoon is good for the community.”
Becker also prepared generic letters of support for the project, phrased as if they had been written by members of the community.
“Attached are 15 support letter drafts,” Becker’s Kris Tanahara wrote in an email to Tam. “Please let me know if you need more letters or want to make any changes to the drafts.”
“I’m an avid canoe paddler and member of a canoe club,” one letter said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the completed lagoon and the canoe hale.”
One letter identified its author as “a long-time Ewa Beach resident,” while another said “My husband and I have been Ewa residents since _ _ and we plan to raise our family here.”
All were fictional, intended to be later matched with people recruited by Haseko who would lend their names to them.
Becker’s public relations specialists also wrote op-ed columns supporting the lagoon changes to be signed by Haseko officials, or even by community members.
Haseko’s Sharene Tam was asked whether the Star-Advertiser was was told that a column submitted for publication was actually written by the PR firm and not by the person who signed it.
“Their (Becker’s) job is to provide drafts like this and to coordinate with the newspapers to see if they can get it published,” Tam replied.
The lawyer pressed. This was done “behind the scenes, right?”
“However they normally worked it out with the newspaper,” Tam replied. “I’m not familiar with the process. That’s not what I do. That’s what they do.”
And there’s no doubt they do it well.
But whether all of the processing by public relations professionals results in the public getting the best information possible on policy issues of importance, is another question altogether.