Surprise campaign mailer made to look like a newspaper – AZCentral.com
Surprise’s City Council and staff have made tweaks to its bond proposal and hope voters will support it in another bond election in 2017.
A political group recently mailed out an eight-page paper on newsprint called the “Surprise Sentinel” that encourages voters to approve city bond requests on the November ballot.
The Sentinel includes a front-page article with a “Surprise Sentinel Staff” byline and columns on the cover and inside from Surprise politicians.
Mayor Sharon Wolcott said her initial reaction to receiving it was, “‘Oh my gosh, look! Somebody has created a new local newspaper.”
Not quite. A pro-bond political action committee was behind the newspaper-style campaign mailer. “Paid for by Citizens for a Better Surprise” appears in the lower left-hand corner of some inside pages.
Wolcott said she quickly figured out it was from the PAC and said the disclosures were sufficient.
‘We felt we were very transparent about it’
One of her own columns, which she gave the PAC permission to reprint, was on the front page. Although she said she didn’t know the PAC’s promotional material would look like a newspaper, she was fine with it.
“One of the greatest forms of flattery is to try to replicate the impact that having a local newspaper (has),” she said.
Drew Sexton, a media specialist with HighGround Public Affairs in Phoenix, did the work for the PAC and said similar mailers have been done for years in statewide, county and municipal campaigns.
“We felt we were very transparent about it. Everything in the newspaper was fact-based and we’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback from voters that have wanted more information,” he said.
‘Fine line’ between informing, misleading
But is it OK at a time when fictitious information continues to gain the nation’s interest?
“Maybe I give voters too much credit, but I would say voters are pretty discerning and they would read through it and see it’s a campaign ad,” said Chip Scutari, a former Arizona Republic political reporter who now manages the PR firm Scutari & Cieslak.
Abbie Fink, a vice president at HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, was fine with it, although she questioned whether the Sentinel Staff byline skirted a “fine line” between informing and misleading readers.
Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists, said the format could easily confuse readers, but anyone is free to use it under the First Amendment.
“What’s most important is that journalists, news organizations and journalism organizations work to teach the public to discern between these types of publications, misinformation, partisan news and traditional and impartial journalism,” Seaman said via email. “Otherwise, we’ll be fighting a losing battle.”
Who’s behind the mailer?
Citizens for a Better Surprise received more than $45,000 in donations from firefighter PACs and construction companies between June 1 and Sept. 30, according to the latest campaign finance report. The money came from 13 donors, most of whom are firefighter PACS and construction companies.
The firefighter donations include:
- Surprise Professional Firefighters PAC: $5,000.
- Daisy Mountain Firefighters PAC: $1,000.
- Local 479 Tucson Firefighters PAC: $1,000.
Among the larger construction company donors were:
- Willmeng Construction: $12,500.
- FCI Constructors: $10,000.
- Core Construction: $9,500.
The city bond request involves three questions that relate to roads and public safety. Question 1 asks voters to approve $34 million for public safety, including two new fire stations. Question 2 seeks $15.5 million to add lanes to major roads in Surprise and Question 3 asks voters for $10 million to repave roads.
The PAC’s chairman, Michael Planeta, is a Phoenix firefighter and Surprise resident. He did not respond to requests for comment.