Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Covering Ratner's brochure: why not treat it like campaign advertising?

The New York Times--and most of the rest of the press--is apparently flummoxed at the thought of analyzing the content of Forest City Ratner's recent reality-bending brochure.

On May 3, this blog, NoLandGrab, and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn broke the story of FCR's tower-free mailer. The story was picked up by The New York Observer's blog The Real Estate and the real estate blog Curbed, but the only mention it got in the dailies was a piece in the Daily News's Sports iTeam blog, which focused on the fact that a smiling model actually considers Ratner "public enemy number one" (though she did sign away her rights when she was paid).

The reporters and editors might be saying: why should we cover this, it's just Brooklyn. Or: it's kind of a business story. Or maybe: it's inside baseball.

Nope.

More than anything else, it's a political campaign, produced by KnickerbockerSKD, which has worked on political campaigns and strategic communciations for major players, including Mayor Bloomberg.

After all, why would the third page of the flier (left) offer a distorted fisheye photo, implying that the 8.3 acres of railyards constitute the majority of the 22-acre site.

And just as newspapers like the Times regularly evaluate political commercials (including those by this firm) for accuracy, they should do the same here, as I'll describe below.

Spectacular spin

Most people who've seen the glossy brochure have scoffed that it somehow omitted the 16 enormous towers planned for the site.

In Brooklyn, the Courier-Life chain followed up with an article dutifully quoting critics, and Brooklyn Papers' editor Gersh Kunzman penned a harsh column headlined Ratner’s glossy fantasyland. Kuntzman described the mailer as a little bit of "a glossy catalogue, a piece of political literature, some junk mail."

The only previous acknowledgement of the consultant's role was a 10/14/05 article by the New York Times, headlined To Build Arena, Developer First Builds Bridges, which stated:
Forest City Ratner also contracted with Knickerbocker SKD, a media consultant, to produce two promotional mailings, each going to more than 300,000 households in Brooklyn.

There was no attempt by the Times to evaluate the content of those mailings, though the first one, especially, was deeply deceptive.

For example, the flier (left) quoted gushing praise for the plan attributed to the New York Times, as if it were the newspaper's editorial voice, rather than identifying it as a statement from then-architectural critic Herbert Muschamp.

(The critic's 12/11/03 piece in the Times, headlined "Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden," just happened to omit disclosure that the parent Times Company and Forest City Ratner are business partners in building the Times Tower, and that Muschamp served with FCR executives on a committee that chose an architect for the tower.)

Who is KnickerbockerSKD?

The KnickerbockerSKD web site boasts an endorsement from Sen. Chuck Schumer, and the principals have some heavyweight political credentials. Josh Isay, Micah Lasher, Robert Randall, and Stefan Friedman (a former New York Post reporter) have experience on campaigns for Bloomberg, Schumer, Manhattan DA Robert Morganthau, and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, among many others, plus work for unions, ballot measures, and an increasing list of corporations.

In a 1/7/02 New York Observer article headlined "Cuomo Gets Young Turks For 2002," WNYC's Andrea Bernstein reported that Isay had formed a firm with Dan Klores--whose Dan Klores Communications firm now handles p.r. for Forest City Ratner.

KnickerbockerSKD emerged later, and is a subsidiary of Squier Knapp Dunn, a Washington, DC-based communications firm.

Still, there's undoubtedly some cross-pollination with the Klores firm. While the KnickerbockerSKD principals have an impressive track record, that doesn't mean they're always convincing. "Mr. Isay also can't stop spinning," Bernstein wrote.

Pride of authorship

In a 12/15/03 New York Observer profile of Lasher, headlined "Power Punk," the subject claimed that honest work meant good results:
"One should not overstate the links between magic and politics," he said. "I try to stay away from sleight of hand in the campaigns I work on, which is made easier by good candidates that you can believe in."

At the KnickerbockerSKD web site, that first Atlantic Yards mailer appears (above) in a grid highlighting 30 print campaigns, flanked by ads for Bloomberg, Morganthau, and the Transportation Bond Act.

The firm is apparently proud of it, even though the flier used "Atlantic Yards" as a return address, thus obscuring the fact that it was sent by Forest City Ratner.

Press analysis

In political campaigns, however, newspapers have learned they must evaluate political advertising--to not rely on critics or political opponents but to use basic journalistic practices and check claims against the record. Other press outlets do it too and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania offers the Annenberg Political Fact Check for regular nonpartisan analysis.

Last summer, for example, the Times twice analyzed ads produced by KnickerbockerSKD for Morganthau's campaign.

An 8/17/05 article headlined Morgenthau Runs on His Record, received the standard treatment: an introduction of the ad (which is featured at the consultant's web site), a description of the action, the text of the script, an evaluation of accuracy, and a "scorecard" that assesses the ad's impact. Wrote Leslie Eaton:
The entire ad appears to have been shot within blocks of his office downtown, and his physical activity is limited to the occasional nod or hand gesture. So the ad may not help him with the little-discussed but major issue in this race, his age. But the list of his office's accomplishments may help refute Ms. Snyder's charge that he has not been innovative in recent years, and the ad reminds the liberal Democrats most likely to turn out for the Sept. 13 primary of his strong stance against the death penalty.

An 8/31/05 article, headlined A Morgenthau Attack, for Liberal Voters, did the same.

Forest City Ratner's campaign deserves no less scrutiny. Outside the blogosphere, the Brooklyn Papers' Kuntzman has been the only journalist to take a look.

What they do for Ratner

KnickerbockerSKD promises clients (under Our Services):
We apply a basic approach to each new project: identify the specific communications challenges of the campaign; distill the complicated issues at hand into a clear, persuasive message; and disseminate that message to win over key audiences.

In the case of this mailer, the message seems to be: the project is in Downtown Brooklyn (though it's not); the Community Benefits Agreement is terrific (though it's been harshly criticized) and the towers don't exist.

Clear? Maybe.

Persuasive? Not to anybody I've talked to, including several agnostic about the project.

Worthy of scrutiny in the press? Certainly.

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