Fake News, Florida-Style
Plus: A.I. Ketchup, Yelling At Reporters
Ketchup, Earl Grey, Hot
Heinz capitalized on the recent Dall-E A.I. text-to-image trend in what is likely the only decent way to do it: by proving that the A.I. thinks the image of “ketchup” is a bottle of Heinz.
Cute spot! Not sure if it is going broadcast or just one of those things where it goes on owned social channels or what. But if you are currently brainstorming ideas about how to use Dall-E for your brand creative work you can probably put your pencils down.
Thanks for reading Scope Creep 🎯! Forwarding this email to just a single client could transform your retirement plan.
Rainbow Flip-Flops Journalism
While portraying itself as a feisty independent outlet, the Capitolist — which aims its content directly at Tallahassee decision makers — was bankrolled and controlled by executives of the power company through a small group of trusted intermediaries from an Alabama consulting firm, according to an investigation by the Miami Herald, based on a massive leak of documents. The internal communications, contracts and financial records show how a team of elite communications experts consulting for FPL plucked the Capitolist from obscurity and used it as part of an elaborate, off-the-books political strategy to advocate for rate hikes, agitate for legislative favors, slam political opponents and eliminate anything — even home solar panels — that the publicly traded utility worried might undermine its near monopoly on selling power in the Sunshine State.
According to The Miami Herald, Florida Power & Light has been bankrolling an alt-right blog since 2016 to attack reporters and lawmakers critical of proposed plans to make the “regulated monopoly” utility company less monopoly-ly.
Contracts and incorporation documents show FPL consultant Abigail MacIver is the sole owner of Metis Group LLC, the shell company that received money from FPL earmarked for the Capitolist in 2018, an internal ledger from Matrix shows. (McGrath, the FPL representative, denied the veracity of the ledgers.)
MacIver’s LinkedIn lists her role around that time as “Vice President, State Operations” for the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), which watchdog Energy and Policy Institute calls a “front group that advocates for policy positions of fossil fuel and utility companies” with strong ties to the Alabama energy industry. PACE has since rebranded itself as “Energy Fairness” and has lobbied against, among other things, rooftop solar initiatives in the state of Florida.
The Herald report states that MacIver was an employee of Matrix, LLC, at the time, the same firm that was the subject of a report by the Orlando Sentinel last year about the creation of “ghost candidates” in Florida state senate races that attempted to spoil the elections of largely Democratic candidates who supported policy positions that would weaken FPL’s monopoly.
So! Rather than paying for advertising or op-eds in traditional media, the state power company created its own blog to change perceptions of readers to be against deregulation or reform.
Putting aside the ethics (you know…in a professional way), my primary question is this: was it effective?
The blog, which is still operating, scans as one of thousands of quick Wordpress jobs full of press release dumps and simply polls, most of which seem to have sub-100 social shares (according to their little plug-in widgets). It seems possible that there was some value in having shareable fodder for Facebook in the post-Trump Fake News Propaganda Spill of 2016, but was it worth the purported “hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating expenses” paid to the blog operators?
What we may have here is a true hero of PR: a salesman who created a largely ineffective publication with unmeasurable impact on public opinion, but created the opportunity for the client executives who paid the bill to feel the frisson of having their own publication to command.
Convincing maniacal yet loaded clients that they are participating in cutting edge media manipulation is one of the great all-time public relations grifts, and it makes me smile to know that even captains of industry can still be tricked into thinking that a slapdash Wordpress site is somehow fooling anybody but themselves.
It’s possible I’m not aware of the impact The Capitolist had on voters, regulators, and the general public over the last 5 years—the U.S. capitol was stormed by people who didn’t understand that 4Chan was not the dark web, so…—but it seems most likely that this content, however vile, was just so much chaff shot into the discourse without ever hitting a real target.
As a strategist I’m a huge fan of targeted information campaigns. They can provide quick, measurable results with relatively low execution cost—a mailer, an email, an invite to a private event—but the magic behind any such attempt is in the audience targeting, real research to identify the power structures of a client’s subject area and educating yourself about the human dynamics, down to the individual when possible.
It’s rarely done because it takes time and is the sort of work you can’t fake. And it doesn’t seem flashy enough for many clients. But I’d take a perfectly pruned and up-to-date 250-person email list any day over vague attempts to “define our target demographic.” In a society where power accretes in the hands of the few, it’s not all that hard to identify those that wield real influence and create a moment and messaging that has a good chance of grabbing their attention and interest.
But This Time It’s Different
“I think of myself as a fairly cynical person,” responded one of the FTX founder’s interviewers, Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine. “And that was so much more cynical than how I would’ve described [yield] farming. You’re just like, well, I’m in the Ponzi business, and it’s pretty good.” Joe Weisenthal, Levine’s co-interviewer, added: “At no point did any of this require any sort of economic case.” To which Bankman-Fried generously conceded: “So, on the one hand, I think that’s a pretty reasonable response. But let me play around with this a little bit.”
From Noah Kulwin’s masterful comparison of the vibes of the ‘80s S&L scandals with today’s cryptocurrency ecosystem.
Tales from the Thrifts [The Baffler]
Rainbow Flip-Flops Press Secretarying
When Florida Republicans held their annual conference last week, party leaders decided to bar a large swath of the press corps from the event. While the hosts declined to discuss their reasoning, one unelected official applauded it.
“My message to [journalists] is to try crying about it,” tweeted Christina Pushaw, whose job as spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis is to communicate with reporters. “Then go to kickboxing and have a margarita.”
The derisive tone was typical of Pushaw, 31, a state employee who earns $120,000 a year. In the 14 months since joining DeSantis’s staff, she has transformed the typically button-down role of gubernatorial press secretary into something like a running public brawl — with Twitter as her blunt-force weapon. Her usual targets: Democrats, the news media and anyone else she deems insufficiently supportive of DeSantis’s agenda and her own conservative politics.
Obviously fuck DeSantis and fuck Pushaw. They’re supposed to be public servants and they are clearly freshly-squeezed fascists.
But professionally speaking I think a combative press secretary isn’t the worst tone to take when you’re representing someone who proudly wears the mantle of scorched-earth repugnancy. I’d go as far as to say that that tone is an essential component in the dark neurolinguistic wizardry of the conservative movement’s communication even if it is also their only recourse.
It’s also why “clapbacks” are so perilous for Democrats, who actively position themselves as the rule followers; they are holding themselves to a higher, or at least more traditional standard, and japes and eye-rolls don’t sync up with the underlying message that the institutions of government are sturdy, reliable, and informative. It’s a shitty trap—in real life, it sucks that villains always get the best lines—but figuring out how to navigate it is part of the job.
You know what does work, though? And is right next door, emotionally and vicariously? Genuine, clearly articulated rage.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw makes sure reporters feel the burn [Washington Post]