"I'm not going to comment on that," explains Jesse Lewis Sr., head of Birmingham, AL, PR agency The Lewis Group. "No comment at all."
None at all? Would Lewis at least explain who hatched the plan to have his firm pay freelancer Audry Lewis (no relation) thousands of dollars to write positive stories about former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy for a local paper?
"Let me back up. What did I say?" Lewis helpfully clarifies. "That's plain and simple. We both speak English."
Whether Jesse Lewis likes it or not, his agency was thrust into the midst of the latest PR-media payola scandal when the AP broke the story of the Scrushy-Lewis Group-Audry Lewis contract January 19, just more than a year after Armstrong Williams and Ketchum blessed the world with the issue that started it all. The particulars may differ, but the steady drumbeat of similar stories, stretching from DC to Alabama, is stirring up dirt that all parties involved would rather see settle to the bottom.
The Scrushy incident highlights not only the ongoing threat that pay-for-play arrangements pose to the PR and media worlds alike, but also the temptations that small community publications with relatively relaxed standards pose to well-orchestrated publicity campaigns.
As the down-home CEO stood trial in his home state last year for fraud, he very publicly touted his strong connection to the local black community, particularly by attending black churches and invoking the support of prominent black ministers in Birmingham.
A mostly black jury acquitted Scrushy in June. Many observers pointed to the white millionaire's strategy of building good will in the black community as a possible factor in the decision, although any such theories will forever remain speculation.
Now, the revelation that Audry Lewis received in excess of $10,000 to write stories for the Birmingham Times, the city's black paper, seems to fall in line with that strategy. Charlie Russell, a Denver-based PR veteran who serves as Scrushy's spokesman, says Scrushy told The Lewis Group last April to stop paying Audry Lewis (although Russell adds he didn't know if Scrushy knew Audry Lewis was being paid to write positive stories).
But strangely enough, Russell explains a $2,500 check that he wrote to Audry Lewis a month later as a payment for future community relations work that he wanted her to do on Scrushy's behalf. Asked why he would choose to hire a person that Scrushy had instructed another PR agency not to hire, Russell responds that he didn't know of Scrushy's objections at the time. He also maintains he didn't know why The Lewis Group was originally hired, or whether its work was still ongoing, or what it paid Audry Lewis for.
For a man with a client as famous as Scrushy, Russell appears woefully uninformed. But ignorance is bliss when a scandal breaks. Perhaps the most ridiculous element of the Audry Lewis payments is that she didn't need to be paid at all, notes Birmingham Times publisher James Lewis - the son of The Lewis Group's Jesse Lewis.
"You don't have to pay to get a story in our paper. It's free," James Lewis says. "The reason we would have gotten it in is simply because a black woman wrote it. That's our responsibility, to try to get the opinions of black folks in front of the total community."
To review: a small-town PR agency; a small-town paper owned by the son of the agency's head; an out-of-town PR pro who knows nothing about it; and a white multimillionaire whose money buys good will while he sits on trial. PR hatched Scrushy's plan, but an outmatched paper helped to bring it to life.