Seattle City Light wants refund on image-boosting effort
Seattle City Light’s work with consulting firm Brand.com was geared heavily toward exalting the reputation of utility CEO Jorge Carrasco, according to newly released records. The $17,500 effort was a mistake, his top aide says.
Seattle Times political reporter
Seattle City Light’s work with consulting firm Brand.com was geared heavily toward exalting the reputation of utility CEO Jorge Carrasco, according to newly released records.
In an email last week to the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray, Carrasco objected to news coverage about the contract, saying City Light “did contract with Brand.com to enhance Seattle City Light’s online presence, not mine.”
But emails and other internal documents released to The Seattle Times after a public-disclosure request show the Brand.com campaign placed an obsessive focus on sanitizing Google search results about Carrasco.
In particular, the records show, Carrasco was aggravated by a negative Seattle Weekly article from 2008 that kept popping up in search results about him. As late as last month, Carrasco and a top aide were exploring whether they could get the piece expunged from Google entirely.
After initially defending the $17,500 in public money spent on the Brand.com contract, Carrasco’s top deputy acknowledged in an interview this week the effort was a mistake and said the utility is seeking a refund.
“This didn’t deliver the results we intended,” said Sephir Hamilton, chief of staff for City Light, who oversaw the utility’s work with Brand.com. “I would not recommend this service to anyone.”
The final straw came when City Light discovered recently that the positive articles generated by Brand.com had vanished from the Internet. Citing that fact, Hamilton sent a letter to the company Tuesday demanding “a full refund.”
Brand.com executives did not respond to calls and emails this week requesting comment. In an email to City Light, a Brand.com representative said the articles in question had been posted on sites that were avoided by Google “and therefore were taken down.”
City Light hired Brand.com late last year as part of a larger strategy to promote itself as “the nation’s greenest utility,” according to Hamilton. That public-relations plan included billboards and new logos on some City Light vehicles.
But unlike those efforts, the work with Philadelphia-based Brand.com centered on lauding Carrasco.
In a September planning document, a City Light manager referred to the Brand.com contract as a means to deal with the “Carrasco search issue.”
To fix that issue, Brand.com targeted search results for “Jorge Carrasco Seattle City Light” and “Jorge Carrasco,” according to emails between utility officials and the firm.
Brand.com’s “proprietary and confidential” pitch to City Light said that while it was impossible to entirely eliminate negative Internet postings from “competitors, disgruntled employees, and other online troublemakers,” the firm had “a way to suppress negative listings that can render them nearly invisible.”
It would use a team of marketers, public-relations experts and “journalists” to flood the Internet with positive content to outrank and push down the negative listings past the first page of search results — meaning most users would never see them.
To prepare for that effort, Hamilton emailed other City Light staffers on Nov. 12, asking them “to collect as much positive press about Jorge from recent months as you can find.”
Hamilton said the Brand.com deal came about in part because he’d noticed old negative articles about City Light and Carrasco when he was considering taking the chief-of-staff job last year. He said there was a public purpose to improving the image of City Light and its CEO for prospective recruits.
“Jorge is linked with the utility no matter how you look at it,” Hamilton said.
Brand.com quickly started spinning up articles about Carrasco’s leadership of City Light. Many were posted on obscure websites like segment.com and outliers.com that no longer exist.
Hamilton also sought advice from the firm on how to make Carrasco’s LinkedIn profile rank higher in search results.
After persuading City Light to extend its initial contract, Brand.com started a new phase of its effort — to plant articles in which Carrasco was quoted as an expert on green energy.
That included hunting around for news stories for Carrasco to comment on. Brand.com suggested a piece quoting Carrasco as praising an innovative program by Ameren, a private utility based in St. Louis.
But Hamilton shot it down: “commending Ameren — a fossil-fuel based company that is owned by investors is simply too much of a stretch,” he said in a Jan. 18 email.
They decided instead to create an article with Carrasco praising a solar effort by a public utility in Austin, Texas.
The PR campaign’s biggest score came in January, when an item was published on Huffington Post, the well-known Internet news site. That piece, by blogger Damon M. Banks, purported to be based on an interview with Carrasco about “affordable green technology for your home.”
But Hamilton said no such interview took place. Instead, city emails show, a rough draft was emailed to City Light on Jan. 22 by Brand.com account representative Justin DeLisi so Carrasco quotes could be inserted.
When the Huffington Post piece went live on Jan. 29, Carrasco and his deputies were thrilled.
“Let’s make a big deal of this!” Hamilton emailed utility public-relations staff.
Carrasco agreed: “Sephir, this is a really nice piece! And on Huffington Post no less!!”
The Huffington Post blog item was taken down by the website this month after The Seattle Times disclosed its connection to the City Light PR campaign. It was replaced by an editor’s note saying the item “failed to disclose a material conflict of interest.” Banks has not responded to interview requests.
Despite the flood of positive articles, Carrasco remained annoyed that the Seattle Weekly article from 2008 continued to show up on Web-search results about him. The article was headlined “Short Fuse: Jorge Carrasco’s Polarizing Tenure at the Top of City Light.” And the Brand.com campaign was not doing enough to diminish its profile.
Carrasco emailed Hamilton on Feb. 16: “Sephir, I did a name search and found the subject article listed as #6, #5, or #4 depending on which name listing I used. It is clearly going in the opposite direction. Seems to confirm something is amiss.”
Hamilton and DeLisi explored whether the article — which Carrasco said contained factual errors — could be “delisted” from Google for an additional fee. But that effort could have involved filing a lawsuit. In an email to Hamilton, DeLisi noted “there would be a record of whomever we represented.”
“It didn’t feel like the right thing to do,” Hamilton said in an interview.
On June 1, Carrasco again emailed Hamilton to note the Weekly article had ascended to as high as No. 2 in search rankings.
Two days later, Carrasco forwarded Hamilton a news story about a court ruling in Europe that said people have a right “to be forgotten” by Google. The decision allows individuals to ask Google to remove information about them from online search results.
“If you can confirm if this opportunity is available in the U.S., that’d be great,” Carrasco said in an email. Hamilton checked with Brand’s DeLisi, who responded that unless Carrasco was a European citizen, it would not work.
Carrasco, who has led City Light since 2003, is paid about $245,000 a year. His management has been praised by a majority of the City Council, which recently voted to increase his salary to as much as $346,000, with the final raise to be determined by Mayor Ed Murray.
Hamilton said Carrasco focused on the Seattle Weekly piece as “a proxy” for how well Brand’s effort was working overall for the utility. When that article stayed near the top of search results, City Light discontinued the contract.
In the interview, Hamilton took a shot at the pieces Brand.com had published for the utility.
“They promised doctorate-level content. What we got was people who could hardly write an article that was understandable,” he said. “This is clearly not something we would do again.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @Jim_Brunner
Information in this article, originally published June 24, 2014, was corrected June 25, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco is the city’s highest paid employee. While Carrasco had long been the highest-paid with an annual salary of $245,000, he was bumped to second place as of Monday, with the confirmation of Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who is paid $250,000. The City Council recently approved a pay raise of up to $119,000 for Carrasco, but it won’t take effect until approved by Mayor Ed Murray.