(Written with considerable input from residents of the Louisiana Delta and a concerned citizen of the UK )
A post I did over the weekend on the Coast Guard's new 65 feet boom rule has given me a lesson in the power of social networking. Rest assured, my work here at the Huffington Post hardly ever gets this attention. For some reason my post struck a very sensitive nerve. I mention the power of social networking because tips that I received on Facebook and Twitter about the Coast Guard's use of paid Public Relations professionals panned out in ways I never expected. On my own, I would have never pursued investigating commentary by Petty Officer Rachel Polish of the Deepwater Horizon Response team on my post--a post which soundly criticized an attack on the First Amendment by the new "boom rule." I was not the only person expressing concern about maintaining press access to Barataria Bay, Louisiana on this long holiday weekend, which ironically celebrates the Declaration of Independence. CNN's Anderson Cooper was first out of the gate.
It was Petty Officer Polish's right to offer commentary and within readers' rights to offer positive and negative commentary on my post. This is the age of interactive media after all. What absolutely floored me were the number of tips that came in on my Facebook page from concerned citizens of the Louisiana Delta and elsewhere. This information offered the possibility that Petty Officer Polish was a paid Public Relations operative for BP, working in her capacity as a Coast Guard reservist.
Did my post inadvertently provide a bully pulpit for BP and Coast Guard propaganda?
Could this be true? As it turns out, there is plenty of room for concern regarding this apparent marriage of public relations and a government agency, especially when the PR firm that employs Petty Officer Polish is the same PR firm that represents BP.
SAN FRANCISCO, July 9, 2009 - Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (Ogilvy PR) announced Rachel Polish as Vice President of Digital Strategy of the 360 Digital Influence Group on the West Coast. With more than 15 years of public relations, corporate and crisis communications, government affairs and social media strategy, Polish will provide counsel to clients across all practice groups and support business development efforts on behalf of the agency.
"Our Digital Influence team has a proven approach to digital word of mouth that constantly attracts an ever-growing client base," said John Bell, Managing Director of 360 Digital Influence. "Rachel's experience, talent and leadership in the digital space will be an invaluable addition to our team, and we are thrilled she is joining us."
Ogilvy Public Relations is the same firm that handles BP's "A Brighter Tomorrow Campaign."
A brighter tomorrow" is the theme for BP Gas, Power and Renewables. We were responsible for brand positioning, creative development and style guidelines for activities above and below the line, worldwide.
Ogilvy widely promotes this YouTube video as an example of how the company handles "ultimate" branding.
Still, I wondered if Polish's PR career was concurrent with her duties as a Coast Guard reservist. The answer is "yes."
Here is Polish's list of qualifications, from her LinkedIn page.
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (Public Company; WPPGY; Public Relations and Communications industry) June 2009 -- Present (1 year 2 months)
Creating engaging experiences designed to promote awareness, brand loyalty, advocacy and conversion as part of Ogilvy PR's 360 Degree Digital Influence Practice.
Develop comprehensive digital strategies and events for consumer brands, technology companies and government agencies designed to increase word of mouth and positive buzz
Manage research projects, providing actionable insights that inform engagement planning
Integrate with account teams, serving as the digital strategy lead for high-profile clients and brands
Partner with clients on internal social media training needs, brainstorming big ideas, measurement and targeting
Here are Petty Officer Polish's Coast Guard responsibilities.
Public Affairs Specialist, Petty Officer First Class, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (Government Agency; Military industry) 2001 -- Present (9 years ) Serve as media liaison for breaking news or Coast Guard operations cases Compose press materials and stories for media and Coast Guard publications Function as on-scene photographer for Coast Guard events and cases in progress Coordinate with multiple Coast Guard units and external agencies on press events and announcements
In her own words, Polish is a media liaison for the Coast Guard, a Coast Guard reservist, a photographer for the Coast Guard, a branding and media specialist, and is working for Ogilvy, whose client is BP, "Creating engaging experiences designed to promote awareness, brand loyalty, advocacy and conversion."