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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Cleveland Metroparks Has Spent $24,890 on Crisis Communications Specialists Since 2012; Here's a Breakdown of the Work

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2016 at 4:30 PM

click to enlarge SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
The Cleveland Metroparks has paid crisis communications firm Hennes Communications $24,890 in fees since 2012 for a variety of consulting services. For instance, in February, the Metroparks paid Hennes $560 for emergency advice on how to handle media coverage of CEO Brian Zimmerman’s salary.

Scene broke the story of Zimmerman's 19-percent raise on February 18, noting that an executive compensation firm had been retained to justify the increase and that the Metroparks’ three-member Board of Commissioners, who voted on it, obscured the details by calling it a "salary adjustment" in the public portion of a board meeting.

When word got out, Bruce Hennes himself and Thom Fladung (the former Plain Dealer managing editor, who joined Hennes in July 2015) began their $400/hour work. That's been the going rate for standard crisis consulting at Hennes since mid-2014. Overnight emergency crisis response costs $450/hour. On weekends and legal holidays, the rate is $500/hour.

Concurrent with Hennes' work, the Metroparks engaged the law firm of Thompson Hine, who, on behalf of the Board of Park Commissioners, issued Scene a Cease and Desist letter. In several instances in our original article about Zimmerman's salary increase (indeed, even in the headline), we'd erroneously written that Zimmerman had "given himself" a raise. Thompson Hine demanded an immediate correction of the misstatements and the immediate cessation of all false and "likely defamatory" articles about Zimmerman. We promptly complied.

Included in the cease and desist letter was a bulleted list of some of Zimmerman's "transformative accomplishments" as CEO of the parks district, which included his campaign of robust land acquisition, his successful shepherding of the Lakefront Parks from state to Metroparks' stewardship, and his "contributions to the revitalization of the urban core."

That list was positioned as a defense of the raise. It was also shared on Facebook in a public post, (which has since been removed), "from the Board of Commissioners." It full-throatedly endorsed Zimmerman's leadership and called into question the ethics of Scene's reporting.

This is what’s called crisis communications.

Mark Naymik, who has done the reporting on Zimmerman for Cleveland.com in his “Hey Taxpayer” columns, wrote in a piece last month that he did not take exception to the nominal amount the Metroparks paid Hennes (though he did call Zimmerman’s 52-percent salary bump over the past five years “astonishing”).

"A part of me is actually pleased that the folks at Metroparks engaged a crisis communications firm," he wrote. "It tells me that some park officials at least privately recognize that not everyone believes Zimmerman deserves all that loot despite the board's publicly stated position that the CEO is worth every penny."

But the engagement of Hennes Communications was by no means an aberration, a one-time emergency expense necessitated by uniquely aggressive reporting. Naymik wrote that the current Metroparks' communications director, Rick Haase, told him Hennes is "no longer working with the Metroparks" — a line Haase repeated to us — but that appears to be a semantic dodge. After all, Bruce Hennes told Scene in a recent email that they've always worked with the Metroparks on an "as-needed basis."

"Right now, we’re not doing any work with the Metroparks," he wrote (italics added). "If they need us, we hope they will call."

And if recent history is any indication, the Metroparks likely will. Since late 2012, Hennes Communications, formerly Hennes-Paynter Communications LLC, has been a regular consultant for the Metroparks and its substantial marketing division. From the Hennes team, Bruce Hennes, Nora Jacobs, Howard Fencl, Social Media surveyor Scott Juba and, recently, Thom Fladung, have all gotten in on the action, creating messaging strategies and tweaking emergency press statements in the wake of hot-button stories reported by local print and TV outlets.

***

Bruce Hennes was first professionally contacted by the Metroparks’ Sue Allen in November of 2012. Allen was the communications director at that time, (she no longer works there), and wanted to explore the firm's menu of services. In January of 2013, Bruce Hennes sent Allen an email with an attached proposal. Hennes could offer a peer review of the Metroparks' existing crisis communications plan and several other services favored by their extensive roster of corporate, governmental and nonprofit clients.

Among those services: a "vulnerability audit," a training session for company spokespersons, a detailed tabletop drill to test crisis responses.

The Metroparks considered, in Hennes' words, buying some "think time" to discuss "how best to present issues before [their] various stakeholders," (for an estimated fee of $5,000-$7,000). But after the initial drafting of “communication tools,” assisting on a message to Metroparks employees and drafting a statement for the board of commissioners on the website (for a grand total of $2,065), Bruce Hennes was engaged on another matter. He was asked to lead a one-hour Crisis Communications Seminar on April 26, 2013, for $1,500.

In emails with Sue Allen after the fact, Hennes admitted he wasn't sure how the seminar was received.

"I was thrown off a bit by the fact that hardly anyone in the room took notes," he wrote on April 28. "(Usually, everyone is writing like mad). I don't know your culture, so that may be the norm. If I missed the mark, please do be candid with me."

Allen assured Hennes that the presentation was "terrific," "exactly what [they] were looking for."

That was the extent of his service for several months. Radio silence until Hennes bumped into Metroparks Chief Marketing Officer Sanaa Julien at a City Club event on August 2, 2013 — a program featuring Brian Zimmerman and LAND Studio’s Ann Zoller at which, ironically enough, Zimmerman invited people "to look at how [the Metroparks] are spending money."

Hennes sent an email to Julien the following week asking if the Metroparks might still be interested in a peer review, "or perhaps even the creation of a full-blown, state-of-the-art plan from scratch."

Julien didn't write back until August 28.

"We have a situation," she wrote on that date, along with her cell phone number. That was the email’s total contents. Subject line: "Please call me."

An in-person meeting was quickly arranged. Zimmerman, Sanaa Julien, Sue Allen (who was off that day, but came in for the meeting), the Metroparks' Chief Legal & Ethics Officer Rose Fini and the Director of Compliance, Benefits and Compensation, Matthew Hawes, convened in a conference room to discuss “an employee issue” with the Hennes-Paynter team.

In what appears to be a coincidence, the meeting coincided with a Scene request for an interview with Brian Zimmerman. It was the first time we'd asked for one.

click to enlarge Brian Zimmerman - @THECITYCLUB
  • @TheCityClub
  • Brian Zimmerman
Our initial plan had been to run a point/counterpoint in the magazine featuring an essay by a vocal opponent of Zimmerman’s leadership, and a response essay (in that issue, or the following) by Zimmerman himself. We sent an interview request to Zimmerman’s administrative assistant, Karen Freedman, but it was Sue Allen who responded on August 28, asking for more information. We didn’t immediately reply. The Hennes-Paynter meeting occurred the following day.

The point/counterpoint essays never ran — in fact, the idea fizzled out — but Nora Jacobs generated a “standby statement” on the employee issue just the same. (Total bill: $1,785.) The interview with Zimmerman didn’t happen either. And as Scene started reporting on the Metroparks in a more concerted way that Fall, it still didn’t happen. Zimmerman’s schedule, we were told, precluded a meeting.

During that time, Barb Paynter billed the Metroparks $1,190 in November for 3.4 hours of work related to an unspecified Freedom of Information Act request, and a meeting with Metroparks leaders, including Zimmerman, on that topic.

Hennes-Paynter was then called upon in an urgent way in December, when Scene published a feature story about the Metroparks' finances ("Parks and Reclamation").

Less than two hours after the story was published online on December 18, 2013, Bruce Hennes and Nora Jacobs had already drafted a "statement on compensation" to be released by Debbie Berry, the President of the Metroparks Board at that time. The Scene story examined, at length, not only Zimmerman himself but the acquisition of the lakefront parks and the infrastructural challenges posed by Euclid Beach. But the Hennes statement focused exclusively on Zimmerman's compensation.

"At the Cleveland Metroparks, compensation for the CEO is set by the Board of Park Commissioners," the draft of the statement read. "It's important to note a number of our board members are involved in negotiating complex salaries for their own top employees, so we rely on their expertise as we develop these compensation packages... Setting compensation for the top executive of an organization as complex as the Cleveland Metroparks is very challenging. Outside observers might feel that our CEO should be compensated significantly less than his for-profit counterparts. But that ignores the enormous responsibility he shoulders for making sure our organization fulfills its mission as effectively as possible.

"The Board of Park Commissioners believes that Brian Zimmerman's salary and benefits are fair and competitive," the draft concluded, "as well as in-line with similar-sized park districts across the country."

Hennes-Paynter billed the Metroparks $630 for reviewing the Scene article, discussing the response, and monitoring the media in the publication's aftermath. A “Plain Dealer inquiry” was also delineated on the invoice.

At that time, in the context of the larger piece, Scene remarked on Zimmerman's pay increase, to $165,000 plus benefits, and the consultant who'd been engaged to conduct a compensation survey. We also mentioned the additional consulting firm that had been engaged to create higher pay scales so that top Metroparks executives could eventually exceed the maximum allowable salary at that time. This was all happening in the wake of the levy passed in 2013 that netted the Metroparks an extra $20 million in revenue every year.

Zimmerman is now, of course, well beyond the pay structure established in 2013. His base salary for 2016 — set after another compensation survey and then voted on by the board — is $220,000.

***

Through the first half of 2014, the correspondence between Hennes-Paynter and the Metroparks, obtained by Scene through a public records request, reveals a mildly exercised Bruce Hennes badgering both Sue Allen and Sanaa Julien about paperwork — rate increases, a long overdue invoice for the December 18 Scene crisis consulting — and trying to determine whether or not the peer review, or other “pre-crisis work,” still might be in the cards. Sue Allen wrote on April 4, 2014 that she’d budgeted a “modest retainer,” and that they’d discuss specifics soon.

On June 1, the crisis consultants were called again. Bruce Hennes created two drafts of the Metroparks’ statement released in the wake of Pete Radke’s death. Radke was the 43-year-old Medina man who drowned while rescuing a girl from Huntington Beach when no lifeguards were on duty.

This was the one sentence from the statement used by Cleveland.com: "Huntington Beach has long been a destination for families to gather in our community and nothing is more important to us than the safety of our visitors."

The next day, Hennes wrote two drafts of a Q&A to prep Metroparks’ spokespeople for potential media inquiries. Howard Fencl revised. One week later, Nora Jacobs drafted another statement, extending ongoing condolences to the Radke family. It was three sentences long. That work cost the Metroparks $1,490, including $405 for nearly an hour of weekend/holiday emergency response.

On August 18, Barb Paynter assisted Sue Allen with the statement she prepared in the wake of two drownings at Euclid Beach. In that incident, a 34-year-old woman tried to rescue a struggling 15-year-old boy. Both of them died. No lifeguards were on duty. Paynter advised Allen that there was “a fine line” between blaming the victims and stating that Euclid Beach was unguarded. (That work, plus a related Bruce Hennes teleconference the following week, cost the Metroparks $630.)

Three days later, Bruce Hennes contacted Sue Allen to say that no more work could occur until Allen signed a letter confirming Hennes-Paynter’s new rate structure, $400/hour for standard consulting fees. Allen apologized for the inconvenience. She also said that she’d opened a purchase order earlier in 2014 committing to paying Hennes-Paynter for services “not to exceed $10,000.”

The $10,000 figure is important because it’s the threshold at which purchase orders show up on the Metroparks’ board meeting agendas. Anything under $10,000 is invisible to the public.

On September 8, Bruce Hennes sent Sanaa Julien a “strategy document” that he and Nora Jacobs had prepared. It was intended to help the Metroparks “prepare for and respond to safety situations and opportunities in a positive, forthright manner.”

The four-page document is polished and crisp, outlining The Situation, The Challenges, Guiding Principles, Key Messages, Target Audiences and Communications Action Activities as they pertained to safety stories, especially in light of risks posed by the lakefront parks. The total bill for that work: $2,040.

One challenge: “Local reporters today are, in the aggregate, younger and less-experienced, giving rise to false or misleading headlines and articles.

One guiding principle: “Be responsive. For the media, silence equals guilt.”

Later that month, Julien called Hennes to discuss the document and the possibility of a “vulnerability audit,” suggested therein, in which Hennes-Paynter staff would work with the Metroparks to create “initial holding statements” and additional messaging for roughly 25 negative events likely to attract community and media attention. In a September 23 email, Hennes estimated that the audit’s first draft would require about 33 man hours, or $13,200-$16,000, based on their variable billing rates.

He got no response until he prodded Julien on November 6. Then on November 10, Julien emailed Sue Allen advising her to add the vulnerability audit into her budget. “Brian would like to do this,” she wrote.

But the vulnerability audit never happened. According to Metroparks current communications director Rick Haase, it was “suggested...but never pursued”. However, in March of 2016 — in fact, the most recent email correspondence between Bruce Hennes and the Metroparks — Hennes once again proposed a comprehensive crisis communications plan, which included a vulnerability audit, at an estimated cost of $27,500.

***
click to enlarge In case you see criminal activity — i.e. wading — at Euclid Beach. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • In case you see criminal activity — i.e. wading — at Euclid Beach.
During the first half of 2015, communications crises were rampant at the Cleveland Metroparks. Hennes-Paynter was retained early and often, billing the Metroparks between $1,240 and $2,510 every month from December, 2014 to June, 2015.

The most substantive consulting work that Hennes had performed for the Metroparks to date concerned a media strategy for Euclid Beach. Both Bruce Hennes and Nora Jacobs had conducted billed site visits in December.

On Jan. 13, the same day of a “Reputation Management” presentation by Barb Paynter at the Union Club, a presentation to which Bruce Hennes had invited Brian Zimmerman, Sanaa Julien and Sue Allen as his personal guests, Hennes and Nora Jacobs furnished the Metroparks with a confidential memo outlining their thinking regarding Euclid Beach.

Like the strategy document prepared in September 2014, the Euclid Beach memo outlined the situation, the strategies and the target audiences. Unlike the safety document, it delved into specific messages, tactics and timing for information release. All of this had to do with the Metroparks’ decision not to have lifeguards at Euclid Beach and the uproar the decision was generating in the community.

The key goals, as stated in the memo, were 1) to “neutralize perceptions that [Metroparks] is neglecting Euclid Beach in favor of other beach properties, and 2) build support for the organization’s safety message.”

The memo envisioned personal briefings with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Councilman Mike Polensek, Council President Kevin Kelley and County Executive Armond Budish; a public meeting and letter writing campaign to residents of Ward 8; personal contact at the Collinwood Observer; and an editorial board meeting with the Plain Dealer/NEOMG.

Councilman Polensek didn’t make matters easy for them. According to Hennes, he was using the lifeguard issue as a “political platform,” and had “engaged Mark Naymik to get involved.”

Prior to a story on the lifeguard issue by Naymik on Feb. 9, 2015, Hennes emailed Allen (on 2/6) with notes on an updated plan. “Call Naymik,” he urged, and “get an idea of the story.” Try to nail down an editorial board meeting. “THIS IS NOT ABOUT MONEY !!!!,” he stressed. “This is about safety.”

Not 30 minutes later, Hennes emailed Allen on another piece of crisis consulting — some notes on the Metroparks K-9 division. It had been revealed that all four of the Metroparks Rangers canine handlers were on “Last Chance Agreements,” formal contracts whereby employees agree to modify their behavior in order to keep their job.

“CONCEDE the obvious,” Hennes wrote Allen. “It doesn’t make sense to have a unit where all are on last-chance. But because of the unique circumstances here, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

To staunch the bleeding on the Euclid Beach front, the Metroparks set up a meeting with PD reporter Jim Ewinger after Naymik’s story ran. They said they wanted to share with him “more detailed information about the condition and challenges” at Euclid Beach.

Ewinger’s Euclid Beach article was “complete and fair,” according to Hennes. And the bill for the February work was $1,320.

In April, the cheetah incident occurred. A two-year-old fell into the cheetah exhibit at the Zoo and injured his leg. Though the cheetahs never interacted with the toddler, or his parents who rescued him, the fall made local and national headlines. Hennes Communications billed the Metroparks $2,510 for their work in the aftermath. It was the highest monthly total in their three-plus years of crisis consulting. The bulk of that invoice ($1,780), however, was for Scott Juba’s work. He conducted 8.9 hours of “social media review.”

click to enlarge The Duncan McFarland Homestead - VILLAGE OF BENTLEYVILLE
  • Village of Bentleyville
  • The Duncan McFarland Homestead
In May, both Bruce Hennes and Nora Jacobs helped the Metroparks craft a response to a Scene story about the controversial proposed demolition of a historic property in Bentleyville. The piece, published on May 13, included direct criticisms of Brian Zimmerman’s leadership from Bentleyvile residents who alleged mistreatment.

The Hennes bill for reviewing the article, discussing the issue and drafting a response was $1,240.

In June and July, both Bruce Hennes and Nora Jacobs contributed ongoing consulting related to Euclid Beach — Jacobs produced an extensive FAQ related to the “no body contact with water” policy — and edited, as they do, both a media advisory and a Q&A to prep for potential media inquiries.

By the second half of 2015, Sue Allen was no longer with the Metroparks — she’d left in April — and once the Euclid Beach brouhaha had died down, the crises abated as well.

Rick Haase eventually joined the Metroparks team — he’d been the Chief Communications guy at the YMCA — and the back and forths were mostly related to setting up meet-and-greets. Kelly Manderfield, who worked with Sanaa Julien on the marketing staff, and who has served as Interim Chief Marketing Officer since Julien was loaned to Public Square in March, began corresponding directly with Hennes as well.

But it wasn’t until February of 2016, when Scene and Cleveland.com reported on Zimmerman’s raise, that Hennes (now with the aid of Thom Fladung) was engaged again. The invoices from 2016 brought the grand total cost of Hennes consulting to $24,890 in just over three years.

Most recently, in March, Hennes helped prepare a standby statement after a child’s injury at the toboggan chutes in Strongsville’s Mill Stream Run Reservation.

“Cleveland Metroparks deeply regrets that an injury has occurred on its premises,” the statement read, “and we have reached out to the child and his family to provide appropriate support and assistance.”

The invoice for that work: $550.

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