Remember when you were little and you didn’t understand how anything worked? Mommy, why is the grass green? Daddy, why does a pig oink?
Then you got a little older and you started to grasp the basics, but the big stuff still eluded you. Mommy, why are you and Daddy yelling at each other? Why is that lady kissing that other lady?
Then came adolescence and the years following that where, hopefully thanks to your education, you suddenly felt like you knew it all. Mommy, want to know why atoms behave the way they do? Daddy, can I tell you about the French Revolution?
Then one day perhaps you finished college and got out into the workforce. Now you really felt like you had the world all figured out. Not only did you know why Mommy and Daddy were yelling at each other, but you could launch into a lengthy treatise on male/female relationships and possibly tell Mommy and Daddy what they should have done differently to avoid those fights or maybe why they never should have gotten married in the first place (but then that would mean you would never have been born – existential crisis! i.e. you now know what “existential” means).
The rest of your years is a large swath we’ll call “adulthood” and during this time you are expected to work, vote, stay informed on major issues, invest, plan for retirement, etc., etc. You also have the option of getting married and having children of your own who will now ask you those annoying questions. Somewhere along the way to all that you’re supposed to figure out the greater of the world’s complexities. What does it mean to be a good person? How does business work and, by extension, how is money made and lost? What are my political beliefs and why do I believe them? Of course there’s the granddaddy of them all… What is the meaning of life?
Some thing of course you probably never spend time thinking about. For instance, how does something make it into the newspaper, on TV, radio, etc? Let’s start here. The key point is this:
Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.
Now, I didn’t learn this by reading this article(which I encourage you to read in its entirety when you have a moment). I learned it by interning at a PR firm. Every morning my fellow interns and I spent considerable time scouring both print and online media for any mention of our clients, the issues important to them, the business they were in or the causes they championed and much, much more. We would put together any and all coverage into nice, photocopied packets and distribute them to our account teams.
We also saw the actual day-to-day business of what PR people do and we participated in it. The firm I interned for was actually very involved in a lot of public affairs type work for corporations, political campaigns, associations, PACs, lobbyists, etc. So we were not pitching stories to reporters about the new Whatchit or Whoozit made by Firm A, but instead massaging issues. Building consensus. Staging town hall meetings. Writing letters to the editor on behalf of our clients. Giving the impression that Firm A cared about what the people in Firm A’s neighborhood thought. Giving the impression that Candidate B was the one you should vote for. That kind of stuff.
It was memories of those days that came back to me when I read this piece about Midwest Generation, a company that runs coal-burning power plants in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Midwest Generation was (and still is according to this) a client of the firm where I interned. In fact, on the morning of August 6, when this story was first posted online, an intern probably printed it out and included it in that morning’s packet. The gist of the story:
Together, the plants emit an estimated five million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says particulate matter from coal-burning plants poses a serious public health risk for local residents.
On July 21, [Mayor] Daley spoke at the official opening of the nation’s largest urban solar-energy plant in West Pullman, a plant owned and operated by the Exelon Corporation. His pledge that day to use every means to combat heat-trapping gases drew applause from clean-air groups.
But the same groups question why the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan — which committed the city to sharply reducing its carbon output through sustainable development, renewable energy and energy efficiency — does not deal with carbon-dioxide emissions from the two coal plants. Public health authorities and clean-air groups say they are among the dirtiest for their size in the nation.
“It’s just strange the two largest sources of global-warming pollution in the city aren’t really addressed,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “They’re the elephants in the room.”
I instantly recalled a situation that arose while I was interning at the PR firm that represents Midwest Generation. I was going about my morning news scouring and had found some sort of posting online that made reference to those evil coal polluters and how that week’s Critical Mass bike ride would go past the company’s downtown offices. I included it in the clip packet as per usual and thought nothing more of it.
Later in the morning though, I got a call from a Senior Account Executive on my team. Sounding somewhat frantic, she said that they would need me to go to the starting point of the bike ride and try to find out exactly what the riders planned to do. Not being familiar with Critical Mass at the time, I suddenly adopted the same concerned attitude. From the website where the listing appeared, it was obvious they were some sort of radical hippie leftists so who knew what they were capable of?
And so, I was sent to spy on the riders and try to determine exactly what route they would take and what, if anything, was planned beyond just riding by. I was to report back anything I learned to that Sr. Account Exec. She would then report anything of note to her contact at Midwest Generation.
The starting point was Daley Plaza (near this for the non-Chicagoans) and it didn’t occur to me on the cab ride over that I would be a tad out of place due to 1) not having a bike and 2) being dressed in PR intern-wear which is a shade trendier than standard corporate office wear. Luckily it was Friday and thus I was in jeans, a casual top and even a jaunty corduroy cap. But I’m sure I was in some kind of nice shoes and even though you couldn’t see my hair too much under the cap, it was obviously washed and not dread-locked. Approaching the few riders that had gathered so far, I was nervous.
After much cajoling and feigned concern for their cause, I was shown a route map. It did seem to go past the plants in the Pilsen area, but not the offices. It occurred to me that these people probably didn’t even know where the offices were. The PR firm certainly knew where to send their invoices, but these folks weren’t so clued in. See, if you Google “Midwest Generation” you won’t even find a company website. Apparently coal-burning power plants aren’t exactly keen on advertising themselves.
In the end, nothing happened. The offices of the evil polluters/clients were left in peace and the plants kept right on chugging. This was in the summer of 2007. Yet today, 3 years later, the headline proclaims that the pressure on Midwest Generation is just now starting to build. The reporter dangles it out there that perhaps good old-fashioned political payoffs are to blame:
Critics attribute the lack of political support [for a city ordinance to cut emissions] in part to substantial political donations that Midwest Generation and its parent company, Edison Mission Group, have made over the past decade. They include nearly $50,000 to the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization of Alderman Danny Solis of Pilsen and more than $10,000 to the campaign fund of Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward) of Little Village. The company has also donated to the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee.
What the article doesn’t mention, but what you now know, is that Midwest Generation isn’t just paying politicians. They’re also paying PR people whose jobs are to protect the company’s image.
Is Midwest Generation alone in doing this? Do only evil, sinister companies hire PR people? No. Every company save for the most impoverished start-ups hires PR people.
It might also interest you to know that most of the people who worked at the PR firm I interned at were rabid liberals. No political work from Republican candidates or office-holders was on the books. At first I thought it was a matter of principle. But then I learned that most many PR people have no principles.
One of our other clients was BP.
So… now you know how the world works and you didn’t even have to ask Mommy to explain it.