CAMPAIGNS: Houghton Mifflin is an open book in face of dispute

PR Team: Houghton Mifflin -in-house (Boston) Campaign: Across the Centuries crisis Time Frame: February 2002 - ongoing Budget: Less than $1,000

PR Team: Houghton Mifflin -in-house (Boston) Campaign: Across the Centuries crisis Time Frame: February 2002 - ongoing Budget: Less than $1,000

Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin (HM) was bombarded with calls and e-mails last year concerning Across the Centuries, a 7th-grade history book. The catalyst was a nonprofit law firm filing suit against a California school on behalf of a parent alleging that the school violated laws by requiring students to participate in religious simulation activities. "The problem started with a supplemental book that wasn't even ours," says Collin Earnst, media relations director at HM. "The media wrapped up all the issues together so people could not distinguish between the supplement, the teacher's creation, and our book. Our job was to set the record straight about our textbook." The PR team defended its book and explained that HM was not named in the suit. But when a New York Post column claimed that the book sought to convert children to Islam, the publisher was forced to go on the offensive. Strategy Full disclosure was the main strategy. "We had nothing to hide," Earnst says. "We spend a great deal of time having multifaith, multicultural scholars review textbooks for accuracy and bias. The book has been used in classrooms for 11 years, and applauded for its objectivity." After "conversion to Islam" accusations were printed in February in the Post, HM's communications became more aggressive. "It's much harder to rectify a situation once an incorrect message has reached the public," Earnst says. Tactics "Instead of hoping that the issue would die down, we pitched an anti-censorship story to major media outlets," Earnst recalls. He says the pitch was a vehicle to get correct information to the media. "You can't just call top media and say, 'If you hear a rumor about this, it's not true,'" he says. "The goal wasn't so much to get coverage of the anti-censorship angle; it was to raise awareness that the conversion issue was a non-issue. We wanted to neutralize the potential for additional negative coverage." Initially, HM responded directly to calls and e-mails, granted all interview requests, and provided free copies of the book to anyone who asked. It posted on its website a statement and a point-by-point Q&A document addressing all concerns, and included references with page numbers, quotations, and examples of the book describing other faiths in a similar manner. "One-on-one dialogue was often the best way to help concerned individuals understand the facts," Earnst says. "When possible, personal e-mails were sent, and every e-mail response gave a direct-dial number to me or the school division president so that customers could speak to someone directly." HM got more balanced media coverage by couching facts in the anti-censorship pitches. "If you get the real information out first, there is no shock value to the rumor," Earnst says. Results After HM defended itself in eight publications, USA Today and the Associated Press ran articles that clarified the facts. Phone calls and e-mails from concerned parents ended once media coverage waned. Earnst says most outlets viewed the controversy as "a tempest in a teapot," and chose to run nothing at all. "ABC News national correspondent Dan Harris was one of many reporters with whom I spoke," he adds. "After several conversations, he decided there wasn't much of a story there." However, the issue flared up again last month after the American Textbook Council, a watchdog interest group, posted on its website a critical review of several history textbooks, including Across the Centuries. Earnst says The O'Reilly Factor aired inaccuracies on February 3, and he will clarify the facts on an upcoming show. The Washington Times, The New York Times, and CNN also covered the story. Future The PR team continues to monitor the news every day. "Because of the nature of history textbooks and the current political environment, this issue will continue to crop up," Earnst says. "We'll handle them case by case, and explain how our book was written and edited."

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