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Originally published June 17, 2014 at 8:10 PM | Page modified June 17, 2014 at 9:59 PM

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City Light spins its PR wheels as publicity ploy backfires

George Orwell would love how the story of Seattle City Light’s fake-news-article generator turned out.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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And the city council's response is that this is paid for by rate payers, not tax payers. Excuse me!! MORE
I'm seriously pissed at Mayor Murray and the City Council about further enriching Carrasco. Why would intelligent... MORE
Pure idiocy. Even if this actually worked, it's not like they really needed good PR in the first place (up until this... MORE

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As usual, it was George Orwell who had it right and said it best about the way government bureaucrats tend to communicate with their subjects:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Except these days one turns to the Internet and spurts out an advertorial.

The story about Seattle City Light hiring a firm to write phony news stories as a way of ginning up a gauzier online reputation for the utility is a classic of Orwellian public-relations foolishness.

To recap, The Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner was doing what separates real reporters from the fake: flipping through city contracts he had gotten as part of monitoring what city agencies are up to. One contract was so odd it all but leapt from the pile.

City Light was apparently irked by a negative article about its pure self that kept showing up on Google, and so had hired a company called Brand.com to create and elevate happy stories instead. The goal, said the $47,000 contract (of which $17,500 was spent), was to buff up the eco-image of leader Jorge Carrasco and his agency, “to thereby lessen the prevalence of any negative or less-relevant stories.”

What’s strange is that the stories, which cast Carrasco and City Light as green visionaries, don’t read as if they were written by humans.

City Light paid for “doctorate level content” from a “network of influential bloggers.” What it got feels more like software bots sifted through old news releases and assembled the bits into broken English.

Sample sentence: “Another unique option offered by Seattle City Light, and will hopefully continue to spread across the United States, is Green Up.”

Or this: “Fully integrated into the long-term conservation programs since 1977, Jorge Carrasco serves as CEO and General Manager of Seattle City Light ...”

We the people paid $17,500 for gibberish!

That anyone signed this ridiculous contract is bad enough (the selling point was doctorate-level content ... from bloggers?) What’s worse is they won’t admit a mistake.

Carrasco, who awkwardly is up for a $60,000, 24 percent raise right now, sent an email to the City Council over the weekend defending the phony-news generator.

“Just as we issue news releases with my quotes (which are increasingly not picked up by traditional media) to promote good-news stories, the Brand.com contract introduced positive stories online and positioned them so they would show up in search results,” he wrote.

The point, he added, was to “enhance Seattle City Light’s online presence, not mine.”

Mission not accomplished. None of the fake stories shows up in the first 10 pages of Google search results for “Seattle City Light” or “Jorge Carrasco” anyway.

City Light: You’re a monopoly. Start acting like one. We citizens have no choice but to buy electricity from you, no matter what your “online reputation.”

Second, why so sensitive? The Internet is like a bathroom wall — nobody really believes what’s written on it (unless it aligns with their pre-existing beliefs, and then it is gospel).

The worst that can be found about City Light on Google anyway is a bunch of people complaining about their bills, along with a 6-year-old Seattle Weekly article saying Carrasco can be a hot-tempered autocrat. You called in the image plumbers for that?

And guess what the top Google result for City Light is now? Of course: It’s the story about them trying to goose up some positive Google results.

Orwell has been dead for 64 years, and he was mostly after bigger prey than this.

But I bet he would love the irony of how this little story turned out just the same.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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