Chron columnist questions misleading SEIU publicity stunt

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The Chronicle‘s L.M. Sixel questions a recent SEIU publicity stunt:

The hearing was scheduled for 3 p.m.

But at 2:13 p.m. — nearly an hour before the session was to begin on Monday — the Service Employees International Union sent an e-mail with the results: “Aramark Workers Expose How Aramark Cheats Workers and Customers at Marquee Houston Venues.”

The release included quotes of what the panelists told members of Houston City Council, the Texas Legislature and a representative of Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia’s office. Complaints covered food safety, pay practices and other concerns at several publicly owned venues.

But there was a problem. A former George R. Brown Convention Center waitress — who according to the post-event news release testified how Aramark refrigerates and reheats leftover banquet food to the point that it’s “spoiled and inedible” — wasn’t at the hearing. She didn’t speak. Instead, someone else read her prepared remarks.

SEIU spokeswoman Erin Smith said the union typically issues its post-event news release before events take place in an effort to get the news out.

The comments come from prepared talking points and everyone is a confirmed speaker, Smith said. The absent waitress was unavailable because she was working at her new job after getting fired from Aramark last fall, Smith added.

“This strikes me as a very bad public relations tactic,” said Sandy Fruhman, a longtime area public relations professional who runs her own firm and has no connection to either side. Not only is it risky, but providing quotes in advance also “raises tremendous credibility issues” by giving the appearance that witness testimony has been carefully scripted to serve the purposes of the group.

We consider it a misleading (even dishonest) public relations tactic.

But, it was also an effective public relations tactic, since the Chronicle‘s City Hall blogger basically posted the press release, uncritically, as if it were completely factual, without as much as a response from Aramark on the wild accusations or any indication that the waitress making the wild accusations wasn’t even present, and therefore didn’t take any press questions.

Obviously, we like the spontaneity and timeliness of blogging (by journalists and amateurs alike), but that is one blog post that doesn’t reflect well on the reporter or the Chronicle.

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