Manufactured Support: How McNeely Pigott & Fox Delivered a Convention Center Consensus


OK. So a couple days after News Channel 5 broke the story of McNeely Pigott & Fox spending the city's money like frat boys with a blank check, where do we stand now? We now know that MDHA hired MP&F to help sell the convention center with a contract that was not to exceed $75,000 and quickly ballooned to half a million. We now know that tens of thousands of dollars were spent monitoring blogs, creating Twitter icons and uploading videos to Facebook. We now know that MP&F billed $2,500 to help Gail Kerr write a favorable column in the Tennessean. And we now know that, because all of this PR work has become a PR nightmare, Mayor Dean has decided to (temporarily) cut off MP&F's unlimited line of credit. MP&F was hired to provide the public with information about the convention center. They ended up doing much more than that. Let's break it down with some specific examples... Here's a line from this morning's City Paper:
McNeely Pigott & Fox founding partner Mike Pigott plainly said the firm did not help write Dean's speeches.
Here's an entry from Mike Pigott's invoice dated October 14, 2008:
Updates to Mayor's speech regarding MCC project; e-mails to J Lacy, $142.50
And again seven days later:
Speech practice, $285
From Peter Woolfolk with Communications Strategies, another PR firm hired by MP&F to do more work for the city, on October 13th:
MCCC (sic) speech rehearsal; Q&A rehearsal, $207.81
From partner David Fox on March 24, 2009:
Develop Mayor's talking points for Council, $285
And again on April 3rd:
Final edits on Mayor's Council presentation, $712.50
And these are just the examples where MP&F got specific. There are dozens of entries for a half or full hour just labeled "speech." Who's speech? Hell if we know. That's part of the problem. It's one thing to say a PR firm is gouging the city. It's another to know exactly how we're getting gouged. Unfortunately, without good record-keeping, that will have to remain unknown. Along with Kerr's column, MP&F also provided help to two other local heavyweights who managed to get their opinions heard in the city's only daily. On April 26th of this year, Fox billed the city $285 for one hour of "work with Ron Samuels re: Tennessean column." On May 3rd, the paper printed Samuels "column" as a letter to the editor. Instead of saying he was CEO of Avenue Bank and current chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, the paper just provided his zip code, giving it the appearance of having been written by an average citizen, rather than a bank president being coached by the head of a PR firm. On April 27th, Pigott billed a half hour for the following entry: "Finish and send Marty Dickens column, $142.50." In the next two days, he'd bill a further three hours (at a total of $855) editing the column "written" by the former president of At&T-Tennessee. News Channel 5 has already made good mention of the fact that, despite MDHA and MP&F's insistence that the work they're doing doesn't qualify as lobbying, the PR firm sent e-mails encouraging support for those Council members in favor of the project.
The day after a critical council meeting in which the council approved buying land for the project, the public relations firm sent out an e-mail that encourages people to thank the members who supported the project. Two of the firm's partners attended that meeting and charged Metro more than $1,200.
Referred to as "e-mail blasts," the messages might have been easier to organize given the fact that MP&F invoiced work "editing the supporters list." They also billed a half hour for doing "research on opposition." (But seriously, they weren't lobbying. Trust them.) E-mails to Mike Pigott and David Fox have yet to yield any new information. We'll certainly let you know what they say in response. It's hard to sum up what still feels like a developing story. But, at the moment, there are a couple things that seem clear: 1) No matter what they say to the contrary, MP&F were lobbying the council. In their own invoices they draw a line between support and opposition. They also make it clear who, out of the two, they chose to reward. 2) Including the words "Twitter" in a headline about hog-wild government spending is always going to make news. What might be worse, however, than a couple hours spent on social networking are all the hours billed for nothing in particular. There are hundreds of pages of invoices with thousands of lines of inventoried charges and roughly 80% of those are grouped under ambiguous titles like "meeting" or "e-mails." What kind of meetings? E-mails to who? We'll never know. 3) Maybe they didn't pen them themselves, but if we're to believe what's on the bill it'd be downright misleading to say MP&F didn't have a hand in shaping speeches given by Mayor Dean and MDHA head Phil Ryan. 4) This "this is only 3% of the money" excuse is utter bullshit. You're saying you can't control costs on a miniscule portion of the budget...and that's an argument in your favor? So MDHA is building us a billion dollar house and they just got overcharged 500% on the nails. This is supposed to inspire confidence? 5) Last but not least, the Mayor. Dean probably made the right move by suspending MP&F's "communications." But are we really to believe he only just realized their spending was out of control? All he had to do was look around the room, during one of his many meetings or speech pow-wows, and start counting heads: There's $285 an hour, there's $285 an hour, there's $285 an hour...At some point, it's not just enough to say "I didn't know." It's your responsibility to know. We wouldn't accept that kind of excuse from any manager. We shouldn't accept it from you either.

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