Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Impersonal Correspondence: I’m not sure how John Stodder’s blog remained below my radar for so long, but a post of his on the subject of Astroturf letter-writing campaigns came to my attention via InOpinion.

Stodder, for those of you who don’t pay attention to the PR trade press and live outside of L.A., is the former Fleishman-Hillard executive who stood trial alongside former Los Angeles general manager Doug Dowie for fraud and conspiracy in connection with the overbilling several FH clients, including the Department of Water & Power.

Stodder provides much of his backstory here (I can find no mention of his conviction on 12 counts) but it’s not the focus of the blog, which is an eclectic mix of personal journal, California reportage, and PR industry commentary.

In his post, Stodder admits to having used the Astroturf approach himself: “It was not so long ago that my staff and I would draft ‘sample’ letters to the editor, and distribute them, on a small scale, to average Dick and Janes to send to their local newspapers as if the letters were their own. We justified it thusly: The words might be ours, but the decision to sign and send was voluntary on the sender’s part. The sender also is free to change our words as much as they want. Our drafts are merely suggestions.”

He goes on to make some excellent arguments against the use of such Astroturf, both ethical and pragmatic: “Nobody would mind if Elisa Baggenstos [see my previous post on this subject] asked a professional communicator to put what is in her heart into publishable form. The problem comes when hundreds of other people use the same professional communicator’s exact phrases, but sign their own names to them. It’s a form of trickery and deceit on the part of the respective campaigns, who are trying to create an illusion of grassroots support by fooling newspaper editors into believing these letters are a spontaneous response to an issue of concern among the paper’s readers….

The practice seems to be growing but I predict its swift demise, because it is so easily detected and foiled. Newspaper editors should be able to sniff out a suspected Astroturf letter, and can confirm their suspicions with a Google search… If the newspaper editors won’t do the detective work, I’m sure the adversaries to the campaigns using Astroturf letters will…. Astroturf letters to the editor are a tactic that, once exposed, cannot be defended without damaging your cause.”


  • At 9:34 PM, Blogger John Stodder said…


    Thank you for your kind words about my blog, and the links that are already coming as a result. I met you some years ago -- maybe 10! -- at an Edelman SVPs gathering where you spoke to us. When I was assembling the blogroll, yours was one of the first I added, because an independent viewpoint is so badly needed in the PR profession.

    To answer your implicit question as to why I have not discussed my case in any detail: I'd love to, but I shouldn't for now. The jury has rendered its verdict, but the legal process is not over. I believe it's best to argue my case in the courtroom. So does my lawyer and I try to do what he says, mostly.

    I will say this much: I pleaded guilty because I am not guilty. I never any intent to abuse my clients' trust in the way that the government has alleged. My billing practices were in complete conformity with Fleishman-Hillard's, as I understood them. I was far from a perfect manager, but I never defrauded a client in any way. I expected to be exonerated. So I will continue to fight for my reputation through the legal system.

    In the meantime, I'm happy to live in a period when I have the opportunity to express my views and to share information and ideas with readers with such ease. I'm living proof that the barriers to entry are gone! One of the themes of my blog is, "What happens to PR when anyone, even me, can become a publisher, with the library of all the world's knowledge literally at my fingertips?"

    For the PR industry, these are exciting and dangerous times. I would be lying if I didn't say I enjoy the independence to be able to comment on it so freely.

    Thanks again, Paul.


  • At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Whoops. I meant to say in paragraph 3 that "I pleaded NOT guilty because I am not guilty." Sorry. Blame my frustration with trying to post this comment during Blogger's downtime yesterday!


  • At 11:40 AM, Blogger Paul A. Holmes said…

    Dear John: I assumed as much. I find the blog interesting even without the personal stuff, and understand the reasons for your silence on pending legal matters. I'm not making any kind of judgment one way or another, but good luck.

  • At 5:13 AM, Blogger ADmin said…

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