When the City of Denver hired the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton last year to deal with the national reporters who were filing stories about its new airport, it agreed to pay top dollar for the company's expertise.
But it took the chief researcher at the prominent Washington, D.C.-based company a half hour just to figure out what time the sun would rise in Denver on March 9, the airport's erstwhile opening date. The charge for that service, performed for a network morning show: $75.
Bills from Hill & Knowlton recently filed with the city offer an inside picture of how the firm went about reaching out to national news organizations and trying to influence coverage of the airport--its job under a controversial $60,000 contract.
The city administration says it is satisfied with Hill & Knowlton's performance, even though the indefinite delay of Denver International Airport's opening ended up severely tarnishing Denver's image. But most reporters and other experts interviewed last week questioned whether the company made much difference--if any at all--in the way the DIA story played out in the national press.
"It's hard for me to believe that Denver's publicity could have been any worse," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and an authority on politics and the media. "I would say Denver has two black eyes and a couple of bruised shins. And they paid $60,000 for it."
Hill & Knowlton courted the city's business last summer after articles critical of DIA appeared in Forbes and Newsweek. The Forbes article was especially harsh, calling the airport a "financial crash in the making" and speculating that the city might eventually default on bonds issued to pay for the project.
Mayor Wellington Webb decided to hire the firm "to promote fair, accurate and comprehensive coverage" of the airport, according to contract papers on file with the city. Hill & Knowlton was supposed to "identify top-tier media contacts" at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other major news organizations, set up interviews with reporters, and then "frame the most appropriate agenda for discussion."
City ordinances prohibit publicly funded PR firms from working for the re-election of Webb or any other politician. And both city and company officials insist they weren't trying to squelch negative stories about the airport--just make certain they were truthful and fair.
"Spin-doctoring we were not doing," says Steven Silvers, the Denver-based Hill & Knowlton vice president who did most of the work on the DIA account. "What we wanted to do was help ensure that whatever arguments were being presented for or against the airport were being put in context. We don't presume to tell the media how to run a story. What we're looking for are inaccuracies and misinformation that is being repeated without being challenged."
But one of the Hill & Knowlton invoices, submitted to the city for work in January, hints at an almost Nixonian paranoia about critical coverage of the airport. Cristie Drumm, an $80-an-hour account executive at the firm, took part of a day that month "to investigate [a] reporter who had written a negative article on DIA," the invoice says.
Briggs Gamblin, Webb's press secretary, says he's pretty sure that reporter was Mike Fumento, author of a DIA article titled "Federico's Folly" that ran in the December 1993 issue of the conservative monthly American Spectator. The article pilloried the airport and former Denver mayor Federico Pena, now U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and contended that DIA will be "worse in almost every practical way than the perfectly serviceable airport it is replacing."
Gamblin says Hill & Knowlton's "investigation" of Fumento wasn't nearly as sinister as it seems on paper: The only thing the firm did was check to find out whether or not Fumento was considered a reputable journalist.
"A half-hour phone call got us the information," Gamblin says. "He's definitely got a conservative slant, but he's a credible writer. Finding that out helped us: It told us we had to deal with his story."
But Fumento says he finds it offensive that he was investigated at all. If "there's something wrong with this airport, fix it," says Fumento, who works for a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., called the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Don't go after the reporters."
Airport officials, Fumento adds, actually got their hands on a draft of the story before it came out. Formerly a resident of Denver, Fumento had finished the article in mid-1993 and had sent a copy to Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole for feedback. Somehow, Fumento says, it got from the News to people at the airport, who called Fumento to complain. "They were fairly hostile," he says. (Amole, a frequent critic of DIA, says he has no idea how the draft found its way to the airport.)
Despite Hill & Knowlton's presence, the city appears to have squandered at least one opportunity to respond to Fumento's piece. After the story appeared, Dan Griswold of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph decided to run it in its entirety on the paper's editorial page. He says he called city officials to see if they wanted to publish some kind of companion article in rebuttal and at one point spoke with Hill & Knowlton's Silvers.
Despite a "tortuous" series of phone calls back and forth, the city never took advantage of the invitation, says Griswold, the paper's editorial-page editor. "We went out of our way to give them a chance to respond," he says. "It just fell into a black hole."
The paper ran the Fumento article alone.
Hill & Knowlton's biggest task was to arrange a three-day media tour for a so-called airport "truth squad" in February, back when DIA was still expected to open March 9. Webb, aviation director Jim DeLong, Silvers and Gamblin traveled to Washington and New York to meet with reporters from the nation's most important newspapers and television networks.
In advance of the trip, the firm's invoices show, executives from the firm contacted reporters and tried to drum up interest in the story. Hill & Knowlton's Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Bobby Kennedy and a quintessential Washington insider, called many of the biggest journalistic guns himself. In late January he phoned John Anderson of the Washington Post, Irving R. Levine of NBC News; Ray Brady at CBS; Martin Tolchin at the New York Times and Robert J. Samuelson at Newsweek. The firm's vice president, Anthony DeCristofaro, also worked the phones, calling Danny Pearl at the Wall Street Journal, Christina Del Valle at Business Week, Ira Sutow at CBS's 48 Hours and Lori Sharn at USA Today.
How much good it all did is hard to say.
NBC's Levine says Mankiewicz's name did indeed catch his attention. Though working on a story in Hawaii at the time, Levine called his office in Washington for messages and, when he learned Mankiewicz had phoned him, made sure to return the call right away.
"He is a highly regarded guy," Levine says of Mankiewicz. "I doubt I would have responded with that immediacy to calls from just anybody."
Still, "it was a very brief conversation," and Levine never did a story on the airport for the network. Despite Mankiewicz's prominence, "we all know what PR people do," Levine says. "They're trying to further the interest of their clients.
"Every week I get calls from PR companies. I make a practice of treating all the calls with interest and courtesy, but I would say one out of thirty of the calls ever amounts to anything I can use."
Some reporters say a call from Mankiewicz may actually hurt his clients' chances of sympathetic treatment. Most journalists hate the idea of being "spun" by "flacks" from public relations companies. Many react with suspicion if a firm like Hill & Knowlton--whose clients have included the government of Kuwait and the Church of Scientology--contacts them with a story idea.
"When you get a call from a guy like Mankiewicz, you know he's being paid to peddle," says Newsweek's Samuelson, who writes an economics column for the magazine. "There's no real conviction. And you take that into account."
Samuelson, like Levine, declined to do a story on the airport.
Still, Hill & Knowlton was able to get the city "face time" with about twenty reporters from more than a dozen news organizations during the truth-squad tour. And at least one reporter says the trip helped him do his job.
"I had the opportunity to get with the mayor and a guy like DeLong right across the street from my office," says Don Phillips of the Washington Post. "It was a wonderful use of my time. So if [the tour] was an idea that Hill & Knowlton had, then Hill & Knowlton did them some good."
But could the city have gotten to Phillips without Hill & Knowlton's help? If Chuck Cannon, a city information officer assigned to DIA, had called, would Phillips have paid attention?
Of course, Phillips says. "If I have a phone mail message from Chuck Cannon and seventeen other people, he's going to be one of the top people I call," he says. "Hell, I need them as much as they need me. The fact that a public relations outfit is involved is not going to get them squat."
The University of Virginia's Sabato says PR firms play on an inherent fear of journalists and the national media, convincing clients that without their expertise they won't be able to get "access" to the right people. Much of it is bunk, he says.
"It's not like reporters have four layers of bureaucracy in front of them," he says. Besides, he says, the DIA opening is a national story anyway. News organizations will cover it with or without Hill & Knowlton's help.
"It's a natural story for a network," he adds. "Why do you spend $60,000 when your own PR aides could have drummed up interest anyway?"
Gamblin points out that he takes thirty calls a day from reporters and did not have the time to arrange the media tour himself. And Silvers says he's convinced Hill & Knowlton helped get rid of what city officials say are common misperceptions about DIA, such as that taxpayer money had been used to pay for the airport.
"With very few exceptions, [members of the national media] are covering the story as they see it, and it's accurate," Silvers says. "I think we helped create that environment."
Sabato is skeptical. "Their fallback is always that it could have been much worse without us," he says. "But you can never prove that."
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Hill & Knowlton charged the city between $120 and $160 an hour for its vice presidents who worked on the DIA project. There were lots of incidentals as well: almost $100 for a videocassette of an ABC News report on the airport; $49 for a limousine to take Mankiewicz to Dulles Airport on October 7; more than $2,000 to retrieve copies of news articles from computer databases.
And Barbara Coons, a senior vice president and head of research at the firm, was asked to figure out what time the sun would rise on March 9 for one of the morning network news shows, which hoped to have cameras present the day of the opening. Records show Coons, who bills out her time at $150 an hour, spent thirty minutes on the project.
Last week a Westword reporter set out to obtain the same information and got it in about five minutes. A call to the National Weather Service bureau in Denver put the reporter in contact with meteorologist Carl Burroughs, who said that on March 9 the sun came up here at 6:20 a.m.
"We have the table for the whole year," Burroughs said.