By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007
There are times in Washington when having a good argument -- maybe even being right -- just isn't good enough.
At times like those, people serious about getting their way turn to people like Eric Dezenhall, the take-no-prisoners maven of message control and author of the book "Nail 'Em!" -- which advises corporate clients (his have reportedly included Enron and Exxon Mobil) to not just defend against bad public relations but to fight back until the other side bleeds.
But there is a potential downside to hiring the likes of Dezenhall: If word gets out, you stand to be seen as on the ropes and willing to do anything to win.
Such is the predicament that the Association of American Publishers finds itself in, after internal e-mails leaked this week revealed that it had turned to the man known as "the pit bull of PR" to help in its fight against patient advocacy groups and the National Institutes of Health.
The venerable association of scholarly publishers, headed by former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, has for years waged an intellectually nuanced battle against medical associations and advocates for the ill.
Those groups, along with many members of Congress, want to make the published results of federally financed medical research freely available to the public whose taxes funded the work -- results that today are typically available only to journal subscribers or to people willing to pay expensive per-page fees.
The publishing association, which includes among its members some of the world's biggest and most profitable scientific journals, has argued that free Internet access to the publicly funded portion of their contents would undermine their subscription bases. Lacking that income, they claim, they would not be able to do the invisible, unsung but important, work of screening out bad science and publishing and archiving the very best.
The problem, Dezenhall told the AAP last summer, according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, is that those arguments have been too wordy and in general too highfalutin to have the desired political impact -- especially considering the natural appeal of opponents' call for free medical information for the sick and dying.
The fix? For a six-month fee of $300,000 to $500,000, Dezenhall told the association's professional and scholarly publishing division, he could help -- in part by simplifying the industry's message to a few key phrases that even a busy senator could grasp.
Phrases like: "Public access equals government censorship," and "government [is] seeking to nationalize science and be a publisher."
The publishers liked what they heard. "Eric helped us see the issues in a few high-concept messages," one member summarized in an enthusiastic follow-up to the meeting.
Yesterday, Schroeder confirmed that the division had entered into an agreement with Dezenhall, though she would not release the cost or other details.
Schroeder said it would be wrong to make a big deal of the arrangement. Dezenhall "is an esteemed author," she said, adding that his firm is not so bare-knuckled that it ought to be avoided. "You take any PR firm in Washington," she said. "I mean, please."
But after years of failing to make headway -- two bills and appropriations language mandating public access to government-funded research are slated to be introduced in the new Congress -- the publishers decided they needed help.
"We thought we were angels for a long time and we didn't need PR firms," Schroeder said.
Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, which has been lobbying for more public access, offered a different perspective.
"It is dismaying to see the AAP turn it into a disinformation campaign," Joseph said in an e-mail. "These policies are not about government censorship or destroying peer review -- they are about expanding access to publicly funded science -- pure and simple."
Dezenhall said in an e-mail that he does not comment on clients or contracts.
Kevin McCauley, editor of the trade publication O'Dwyer's PR Report and the man who coined Dezenhall's "pit bull" appellation in a 2006 interview with Business Week, said the publishing association may live to regret the image of desperation that comes with an association with Dezenhall.
"The question I want to ask the publishing association is why a group that publishes scholarly journals feels the need to go this route," McCauley said.
His question might best be answered by the one-page statement the association released yesterday, which Schroeder confirmed was written internally and not by Dezenhall.
"Private sector non-profit and commercial publishers serve researchers and scientists by managing and funding the peer review process, disseminating authors' work, investing in technology and preserving millions of peer-reviewed articles as part of the permanent record of science," the statement read, in part.