Left-Wing Activists and Corporate America

     Some funny things can happen when political activism mixes with corporate operations. Corporations and their officers routinely contribute to Republican and Democratic political campaigns and causes, but the situation can be downright embarrassing and even risky with pure activists.

     The latest collision in this busy intersection happened earlier this month involving the office supply store chain Staples and the liberal group Media Matters. In a news release issued Jan. 4, Media Matters claimed partial credit for what it described as a decision by Staples to stop advertising on television stations owned and operated by Sinclair Broadcasting. Media Matters has a beef with Sinclair Broadcasting, accusing it of promoting a conservative agenda.

     The Media Maters release noted, "Staples, Inc. attributed its decision in part to the response the company received from customers visiting the SinclairAction.com website," which is run by Media Matters and is supported by the militant group MoveOn.org and a number of similarly inclined left-wing organizations.

     This release was picked-up by a few news outlets, which moved stories on what Media Matters did. Trouble is, Staples wasn't buying the news coverage or the release that spawned it.

     Staples responded with its own statement, claiming the company's position regarding Sinclair was, "misrepresented by an organization with no affiliation," with Staples, further stating the office supply retailer would continue to advertise with Sinclair.

     This denial led to another Media Matters release on Jan. 7, which included a letter to Staples from Media Matters President and CEO David Brock, who wrote, "As you may know, Staples, Inc. officials reviewed, edited, and approved the Media Matters press release of January 4, 2005, in both draft and final form."

     The 'we said-they said' quagmire deepened with a Los Angeles Times report that included Staples' Vice President of Public Affairs Paul Capelli. "Staples executives reviewed the news release prepared by Media Matters before it was made public. But, he said, 'we didn't approve it,'" the newspaper reported. Capelli was further quoted saying, "We said, 'No, we don't want you to issue the press release,' and they issued it anyway."

     In fairness, Staples' position wasn't helped on this matter when Capelli was part of an earlier report by the Associated Press . "A spokesman for Framingham-based Staples said Wednesday that the company's decision to discontinue advertising during news programming Jan. 10 was made in response to the complaints and as part of the company's routine, periodic adjustments to its media buying," noted the AP.

     Odd as this all is, the weirder thing is how similar it is to an earlier flap between another corporate giant - Home Depot - and another left-wing advocacy group called PFLAG, the acronym for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

     During an episode in 2001, PFLAG issued a statement that Home Depot was sponsoring its Father's Day promotion, resulting in media coverage around the country. Home Depot promptly denied PFLAG's assertion, telling reporters the company was not sponsoring the promotion, that the company did not approve the PFLAG announcement and asked them to not issue it, which they did in spite of objections.

     A 'corrected' news release was issued by PFLAG, which later resulted in a third statement from the group correcting its correction, which was also factually flawed. When asked about the string of erroneous news release, PFLAG officials were largely not available for comment.

     I don't know that these two situations constitute a trend. But there appears to be a cautionary tale here for corporate America - hook up with left-wing groups at your peril.

     In both of these two cases, corporations found themselves at odds with liberal organizations hoping to capitalize on the cachet of these companies, resulting in charges and counter-charges. While it's doubtful these incidents will hurt or have hurt the bottom lines of Home Depot or Staples, it's a sure bet they detract from things that most certainly help the bottom line.

     In the Home Depot incident, PFLAG was eventually forced to correct the record it had misrepresented despite corporate concerns. The Staples situation is somewhat cloudier, but Media Matters has so far declined to offer anything to support its claim that Staples approved the group's news release, which started the dust-up in the first place.

     Perhaps the Staples-Media Matters flap will fade into oblivion unresolved; perhaps it will be ultimately settled. But these two incidents underscore a common fault among so many liberal organizations - to take rhetorical liberties at the expense of others and create unnecessary problems in the process. It's an unnecessary corporate risk that merits caution, particularly when dealing with groups that rarely, if ever, have corporate interests at heart.

Scott Hogenson, former executive editor of Cybercast News Service.