Harvest Fails: A Cautionary PR Primer for Progressive Non-Profits Unions and Co-ops
Last Monday evening, September 10th, I went out to cover what I thought would be a routine, paint-by-numbers story for Open Media Boston. But it turned out to be anything but routine. And I feel that the resulting conflict serves as an excellent cautionary tale for progressive non-profits, unions and co-operatives on how not to run their public relations operations.
To continue, earlier that Monday I had gotten a press release from members of the Harvest Co-op that have been organizing to get a membership referendum passed that would enjoin the co-op to honor the international boycott against the Sabra and Tribe brands of hummus - since they are owned by Israeli companies that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement considers complicit in that nation's long parade of human rights abuses against the Palestinian people. The release said that boycott advocates would be showing up at the Harvest board of directors meeting that night, and debating with them about what they felt to be irregularities in the referendum process. I thought it would be an interesting piece because there's been a controversy brewing between co-op members in the Boston Hummus Campaign and the Harvest board for several months now. The board had presided over a number of recent policy decisions on co-op referenda that boycott advocates felt were aimed directly at hamstringing their effort - culminating in the board disallowing over 100 signatures that the advocates had gathered on their referendum petition. Which resulted in the referendum being quashed by the board for failing to meet the minimum number of member signatures necessary to move forward - and under the new policies, once a referendum effort is defeated it can't be raised again.
A tough pill for any advocates to swallow to be sure.
So I got to the meeting about 10 minutes before its 6:30 p.m. start time. I wore my very visible press ID card on a lanyard as I always do when I'm in the field. I knew the meeting would be somewhere in the East Cambridge building that housed the Harvest business office. But when I tried the front doors of the building, they were locked. However, I immediately noticed that a tall man and a shorter woman were on the other side of the door. I indicated that I wished to be let in, and they obliged me. I recognized the woman as the Harvest board president - Christina Lively - from the headshot on the board page of their website - though pleasantries weren't exchanged. I said I was looking for the Harvest board meeting. She asked if I was with the press. I said yes. She asked what I was there to cover. I said that I thought they knew what I was there to cover. She asked if I was a co-op member. I said no. She said that I had to leave because it was a members-only meeting. Knowing that it was private property, I immediately started to leave. But as I walked out the door, I told her that they were making an extremely unfortunate mistake.
I then walked across the parking lot and hung out on the sidewalk near the building for 30 minutes - chatting with a couple of advocates as they came in. They promised they'd raise a protest about the exclusion of press from the meeting. But once it became clear that no one was coming out to let me in, I took off.
Fast forward a few days, and I was in motion. By Saturday morning, I managed to get the Harvest board to respond to several questions I asked them for the article that had by then assumed much more importance in my mind than it would of had I written the nuts-and-bolts "meeting happened" story that I had originally planned to write.
My last question asked them to explain why they had barred me from their meeting.
Christina Lively responded on behalf of the entire Harvest board, "Co-ops are private organizations that operate for the benefit of their members. Only co-op members or owners and guests invited by the Board are allowed to attend meetings. Some boards ask guests to bring their owner card and ownership is verified and guest names and owner numbers are noted in the minutes. (seehttps://cdsconsulting.centraldesktop.com/cbld/doc/19134684) The Harvest co-op board does sometimes host meetings open to the public, but our Board meetings are private and open only to co-op members and guests invited by the Board."
Now that was a legitimate response. Legal and by-the-books as far as it goes.
But it was also a bad response.
And let me explain why.
PR 101. Never refuse a reporter entry to a meeting on a matter that's the subject of public discussion and debate.
Because doing so makes the reporter assume that the organization stopping him or her from doing his or her job has something to hide.
It was also a bad response for another reason.
Because if "guests invited by the Board" are allowed to attend Harvest board meetings, then the board should have simply afforded that privilege to members of the press. Period.
If it was a purely internal matter, like a hire/fire decision, then the average reporter would let it be. The press won't generally try to attend private organizational meetings because we know that private meetings are usually closed to us, and because there's no issue of public interest being discussed.
But when there's a big prolonged debate on a matter of public policy that spills over to a major membership organization like a local co-operatively run supermarket (two supermarkets actually), as was the case here, then a meeting between some of the main antagonists is certainly worthy of coverage in the press.
A smart organization - especially a smart progressive organization like a food co-op - would avail themselves of any number of reasonable alternatives to barring the press from such an event outright.
Such an organization could a) allow the press to attend the whole meeting, b) allow the press to attend just the relevant part of the meeting, c) record the relevant part of the meeting and get a recording to the press, or d) allow opposition leaders to record the relevant part of the meeting and get their recording to the press.
Of course, since Harvest didn't allow anyone to audio or video record the meeting that option was off the table from the word go in this case. Their response to me on that matter was as legalistic as their response on the matter of my being barred from the meeting.
And an equally bad response.
They quoted state wiretapping and recording law at me.
"Board meetings are private meetings for co-op members and invited guests only. Because Board meetings are private meetings, people must get consent from members of the group before recording them. Recording private meetings or conversations without consent is against Massachusetts law. (http://www.citmedialaw.org/legal-guide/massachusetts-recording-law). In addition, the Board speaks with 'one voice'. This means that once a vote is taken, each board member must stand by that vote, whether or not they voted for or against the measure. The Board does not seek or keep a transcript of the meetings, but instead keeps minutes that reflect the decisions made, not the person who said a particular comment. Board meetings should be a safe space where co-op members (both members and the board, who are also co-op members) can speak their minds and be respected for their opinions without fear of retribution from those who may disagree with them. The Board has followed its bylaws and worked to clarify these bylaws with this group. In fact, has been helpful in answering questions as noted in the above. We understand that people may not be happy about this decision. We invite members should be able to voice their opinions for the co-op, but these meetings are not open to non co-op members or uninvited guests."
Every reporter knows wiretapping and recording law. We have to. It's our business to know it.
But the laws in question are not really aimed at organizational meetings of the type being held last week. Certainly not when there's a matter of public interest being discussed and debated. And the meeting has been publicized. At that point the public's right to know comes into play. And even if that argument is resisted by the average smart progressive organization, and even if the press ends up being barred from the meeting, and even if any party to the dispute doesn't mount a legal challenge on the matter, then at least the meeting attendees in a progressive organization like a food co-op have every right to expect that they should be able to record a meeting they are participating in.
Indeed, given that recording devices are so completely ubiquitous in this digital age and given that most smart progressive organizations believe in the importance of transparency to a democratic process, it's almost silly to try to prevent such recordings by parties to such meetings. And it's definitely unusual to do so these days. Outside of autocratic corporate and church boards, that is.
I won't spend any time refuting the logic the Harvest board deploys in explaining how their board speaks with "one voice" - and therefore board meetings are never transcribed (or apparently recorded). It strikes me as powerful strange, and likely a result of too many lawyers on the board over the years. Suffice to say I find it shocking.
Instead I will circle back to the fact that I was the only person asked about my co-op membership status at last Monday's Harvest board meeting. And advocates that attended the meeting have since told me that none of them were asked to provide proof of co-op membership by the Harvest board. And that at least one of the attendees was not a co-op member at all.
Which means that I was singled out for questioning on my co-op membership status by the Harvest board because I am a reporter - who was certainly prepared to do something that Harvest board members didn't want anyone to do at last Monday's meeting ... record it in any way.
And that's just really lame.
And it doesn't make me have very warm feelings about the Harvest board. Because they decided to play games with a working member of the press. For now, I'll assume that's the case because they're not very experienced in dealing with the news media. But they have to know that I'm going to pay closer attention to hummus controversy now. And that I'm going to encourage other local news outlets to do the same.
That's the deal so far.
So I'll just leave you all with some obvious advice.
If you're in the leadership of a progressive non-profit, union, or co-operative - or any nominally democratic organization, or any fair-minded business - and you ever run into a situation where the press is trying to gain access one of your meetings to cover a matter of public interest ... just let them in.
Failing to do so will leave you with annoyed reporters. And the real possibility of some negative press hits not far down the line.
Like this one.
9/19/12 Correction: Aw shucks. After working myself into a high dudgeon above in the conclusion to this editorial, I just got word from another hummus advocate that she and a few other advocates actually were asked about their co-op membership status before the Harvest co-op board meeting began. So I guess my feelings about the Harvest Co-op board have now warmed up a few degrees. But naturally, I wouldn't have made this error of fact if the board had let me in the meeting to begin with. Which cools my feelings about them back down a few degrees.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston