Journalist David Menzies has written an amusing and slightly disturbing article about his experience writing about (and for) the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA) for Marketing magazine, where he’s a regular columnist. Menizes wrote articles that were critical of ARMA for such publications as The Western Standard, and was later approached by ARMA to write something favorable on contract. The whole sorry saga suggests the organization needs to hire serious PR representation…fast! I’ve copied the article below.
September 11, 2006
Don’t try this at home
By DAVID MENZIES
A government agency tries offering a critical journalist lucrative freelance work. Call it damaged damage control
And now for something completely different: a tale of damage control gone horribly awry. By way of background, in addition to my “Consumer Guy” gig, I also toil as a freelance writer for several periodicals. As you can imagine, I’m constantly dealing with industry and government spin doctors. Their mandate is to influence people like me to serve their own interests. It’s all part of the game. But something occurred recently that left me dumbfounded. It also left me praying that this was an isolated incident, and not the shape of things to come when an entity feels it necessary to creatively deal with “bad press.”
I’ll cut to the chase: last year I penned two magazine features for Canadian Business and Western Standard on an electronics recycling program in Alberta. The program is managed by a government agency called the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA). The gist of each article was that the ARMA program is a gremlin-laced lemon.
Indeed, ARMA’s e-waste initiative has achieved the near-impossible by infuriating both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. The left is miffed because there’s little evidence that Alberta’s electronic waste is being properly diverted; as well, there are no incentives to entice brand owners to make their electronic products more environmentally friendly. Those on the right, meanwhile, label ARMA’s “Advanced Disposal Fees” as just another egregious tax grab (an Albertan consumer, for example, must now pay an ADF of $45 when buying a big screen TV.)
Needless to say, I wrote a scathing indictment of the ARMA program. As is its right, ARMA responded with a letter to each editor, claiming I got it all wrong and that I had done ARMA a disservice. End of story.
Er, not quite. I later received a phone call from ARMA’s communications manager, Kari Veno. And what she had to say left my jaw resting on the linoleum. Namely, ARMA wanted to get the message out on how great its e-waste program is. And I was the wordsmith to pen such a piece! Naturally, I’d be well-paid for such an assignment. And as a bonus, I’d get additional coin if I could somehow get the article published in various trade and consumer periodicals. (Never mind that a journalist would be hard-pressed to sell a story to any credible media outlet if the article was funded by a source, but I digress.) At this point, does any reader need to reference Coles Notes to figure out the unspoken strategy of ARMA? I didn’t think so.
My first reaction was to try to talk myself out of the assignment. I told Veno I was likely “the last writer on earth” ARMA would want to hire given my previously published articles. Inexplicably, Veno remained convinced I was the write stuff essentially because I had already researched the program.
Faster than you could say “payola,” I was on assignment for ARMA. But the hoped-for puff piece would soon emerge as a stillborn abomination. After re-researching the program and re-interviewing various sources (many of whom were provided by ARMA), I e-mailed my questions to ARMA’s CEO Doug Wright to get ARMA’s official response. Those questions zeroed-in on some very nitty-gritty details regarding ARMA’s e-waste program, the sort of information, I reckon, ARMA doesn’t want to make public. The result: I was informed that ARMA was “too busy” to take part in the project. By this point, the situation was perversely amusing: here was ARMA paying me to write a story on its terrific program but was declining to comment.
I recently linked up with Guy Crittenden, editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine (Crittenden is also a vocal critic of the ARMA e-waste program.) Disturbingly, he wasn’t surprised to hear about my misadventure. That’s because he was also casually approached by ARMA to pen some (presumably) happy-talk feature about the e-waste program. Being the editor of the leading industry trade magazine, Crittenden declined.
Closure came in mid-July when I took delivery of a “kill fee” from ARMA (my apologies to the taxpayers of Alberta). The cheque was accompanied by a one-page letter from Wright. His missive boiled down to this: ARMA believes in being transparent and accountable with the public and the media … but just not at this particular time.
The bottom line is a media-savvy professional needs to deliver a message to ARMA. And the message is this: while prostitution is legal in Canada, alas, the act of communicating for the purpose of solicitation is not.
DAVID MENZIES is a Toronto writer. His “Consumer Guy” column appears every two weeks.