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Spin Doctors To The World : The Sawyer Miller Group Uses The Tricks Of Political Campaigns To Change The Way You Think About Foreign Governments, Big Business And Any Client In Need Of An Image Lift

November 24, 1991|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is a Times national correspondent. A collection of his articles, "Shades of Gray," will be published in March by Bantam Books.

Diamond offers Safeway Stores Inc. as an example. The Oakland-based company hired Sawyer Miller to help in the aftermath of the brutal 1986 buyout, by a Safeway management group and takeover specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., that resulted in 63,000 dismissals and layoffs. "Three years after the downsizing, CEO Peter Magowan was concerned about employee perceptions," Diamond says. "We did a huge amount of research. We found tremendous concerns among employees about the future. Their company, instead of being No. 1, now was No. 5, and was owned by a company from back East. And Magowan was a multimillionaire from the deal. We approached the problem just as we would a political campaign. We had to show that Safeway will be No. 1 in profit, and that you, the employees, are going to be part of the team that does it. To do this, we designed a Peter Magowan campaign. He had a dozen focus groups with employees, which we filmed and showed to the rest. He held dinners. He went on the road. He sold the creed." Once again I find myself facing the risk of dampening a Sawyer Miller partner's enthusiasm. It seems necessary, though, for despite the firm's efforts, the Safeway buyout remains one of the bloodiest and most reviled in recent times. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal series last year found that the LBO had generated a vast bitterness--even among employees handpicked by the company for interviews--and, at least indirectly, several employee deaths due to suicide and heart attacks. Meanwhile, the new owners watched their initial cash investment quadruple to $800 million. It's hard to say whether a half-hour videotape of a CEO saying he's sorry and we're No. 1 would adequately "motivate" employees.

"There is human suffering, yes," Harris Diamond says. "But efficient markets and businesses mean more wealth for society as a whole than do inefficient ones." Diamond reflects on his comment for a moment. Now 38, he comes out of Greenwich Village grass-roots politics and campaign consulting for Democrats across the country. "Twenty years ago I would not have said that," he admits.

Later that day, another Sawyer Miller partner, Ed Reilly, a former undersecretary for environmental affairs and director of policy for two Massachusetts governors, tells me about Sawyer Miller's campaigns to win community approval for solid-waste energy-conversion plants. First build a coalition for the idea of a plant, Sawyer Miller advises. Sell the elements of safety. Establish the idea of economic benefits. Sell the fairness of the site selection process. Then, and only then, pinpoint the actual site.

"You are never going to get support in local site-specific areas," Reilly explains. "That's gone from the start. So you begin by building a broader coalition for the plant. Then you go to the site. You divide it from the rest of the larger community. How? Luncheon circuit, guest columnists, visits with editorial boards, university lectures. In other words, you control the dialogue, instead of letting the activists or the community do so."

By now I'm feeling like a glum, unwelcome guest at a party everyone else is enjoying. As did the others, Reilly remains thoughtful and sensitive even when I suggest that Sawyer Miller people might be soldiers of fortune, that the company might have a certain disdain for the public.

"We have a good creative tension here," he says. "We suffer. We fight here over what projects to accept. I hope we'll always fight. Some nights, I go home very proud. Some nights I go home and wish I hadn't spent time on that. . . . But I have no problem being part of a company that moves public opinion to reach a goal, if I'm comfortable with that goal. You gotta pass the smell test. We do care about public opinion. At least we give a shit about public opinion."

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