The Attorney General's Commission on Pornography report promised to be a hot topic, so who else would magazine distributors call to come to their defense but the controversy specialists: Gray and Co. Public Communications International?
The Georgetown public relations firm, which has lobbied for clients such as the governments of Angola and Turkey, was enlisted to oppose the commission by Americans for Constitutional Freedom shortly after it was formed two months ago in anticipation of the report's release.
ACF, an alliance of mainstream-magazine distributors, wants Gray to help it tell the country it is being "threatened by self-appointed censors and moral vigilantes."
Gray will be orchestrating a public-relations campaign designed to offset the commission's report. "The audience is the American public," said John Harrington, one of ACF's organizers and executive vice president of the Council for Periodical Distributors Association, which is based in New York. The CDPA and an international sister organization provide all the funding for ACF.
"We see the campaign in two steps," Harrington said. "The first is to address the issues raised by the so-called Meese commission report, and the second is to address the broader issues of press freedom and form a long-term campaign.
"We think the self-appointed censors have a wider agenda on their mind," he said. "It's not just limited to men's magazines."
Plans for the full campaign are incomplete, according to Gray officials.
Harrington said the campaign probably would not include advertising, citing the group's limited funds. "Gray will be working to get press coverage and get ACF the opportunity to talk to trade groups, like the drugstores association or the Food Marketing Institute."
Through those groups, ACF can reach the stores that sell the magazines. Some chains of stores, such as 7-Eleven and Rite-Aid, stopped selling certain magazines because they thought they might be considered distributors of pornography.
"We are concerned about the overall threat of the protests and boycotts of magazines," Harrington said, adding that other types of magazines already are threatened. "Wal-Mart banned teen magazines because they promoted rock music. They're protesting things that aren't even remotely connected with pornography," he said.
Harrington said ACF is trying to sign major periodical publishers as members, but might not admit publishers of only controversial magazines to the association because of the image that might create.
Publishers of mainstream magazines might hesitate to join ACF if its first few members included publishers of controversial material because of the adverse publicity that could result, industry sources said. Once the group is sufficiently large, however, membership probably would not be restricted.
Gray is likely to work to keep itself as noncontroversial as it wants ACF to be in order to please its soon-to-be parent, conservative public relations agency Hill and Knowlton Inc. When Hill and Knowlton agreed last month to acquire Gray, analysts predicted Gray would tone down its operation to fit in with the new owner's image.
"It's controversial," Peter Verrengia, a Hill and Knowlton vice president, said of the ACF account. He said the decision to accept the account has been reviewed by the parent company, "but Americans for Constitutional Freedom is the type of client public relations is good at helping."
Gray officials downplay their client's status and its relationship to the commission. "It's hardly a controversial group," said Jill Schuker, the vice president handling the account, who said the group's formation and subsequent signing with Gray just prior to the release of the pornography commission's report was "a coincidence of timing."