Sep 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

New PR ploy

Illustration of a piece of cloth covering a handshake between two people.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The head of a prominent centrist advocacy group quietly seeded a news outlet that provides a steady stream of positive coverage for her organization and its board members' lobbying clients, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The fragmentation of digital media means virtually anyone can be a publisher. When public affairs intersects with political coverage, it can blur the lines between news and advocacy.

The big picture: The Well News says it "reaches more than 5 million Americans" through its website, videos and social media channels.

  • It was founded in 2018 by Cori Kramer, the executive director of Center Forward, and Kristen Hawn, a PR consultant who's worked with the group. Internal communications reviewed by Axios show they've had direct input on TWN's editorial product.
  • "Our founders wanted a news outlet that highlights practical policy-making, good governance and brings a voice to people and events that are often overlooked in the current news climate," its website says.
  • TWN has written positively about Center Forward without disclosing its co-founder's dual roles. It's also promoted "leading bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions" without mentioning that Hawn is a partner at that firm.

Between the lines: Like most news outlets, TWN relies on advertising revenue. Its website is frank about the opportunity that it provides its financial backers.

  • "[W]e serve as an extension of your marketing team, so contact us below and put us to work building a strategic, holistic, cross-channel marketing plan that makes you look like a hero," TWN says.
  • Among those advertisers is tobacco giant Philip Morris, which has paid to place content on the site praising its smokeless products and its efforts to root out PPE fraud.
  • Archived versions of both those ads show them initially appearing as standard TWN stories without any sponsored-content disclaimers.
  • TWN would not speak on the record about those ads in response to multiple Axios inquiries. A person familiar with the site's operations insisted they were properly disclosed at the time, and that internet archives omit website elements that included the disclaimers.

The intrigue: Philip Morris isn't just a TWN advertiser. It's also a lobbying client of Center Forward board member Jeff Murray.

  • Murray is former chief of staff to former Rep. Bud Cramer, Center Forward's chairman. Both were lobbyists at FTI Consulting before leaving this year for a new firm, the 535 Group.
  • In April, the 535 Group signed a lobbying deal with Facebook. A month later, TWN wrote a positive story about the social media company's environmental and sustainability commitments.
  • Also on Center Forward's board are Forbes-Tate lobbyists Cindy Brown and Libby Greer, whose clients include Uber, Walgreens and Tyson Foods — all of which have received glowing TWN coverage.
  • An April 2020 story on private-sector efforts to address the COVID pandemic was based largely on a Center Forward report that plugged at least six of its board members' clients.

TWN's centrist editorial outlook naturally aligns it with the policy goals of Center Forward, its board members and its financial backers. But the lack of disclosure means readers aren't made aware of that overlap.

  • The site has written skeptically about progressive health policy measures such as Medicare for All, for instance. Last month, it published two stories on Center Forward surveys showing public support for preserving the existing Medicare system.
  • Readers had no overt notice that Greer and Brown lobby for a health industry trade group explicitly devoted to opposing Medicare for All.

What they're saying: Asked whether Center Forward board members had ever recommended stories to TWN, or whether Kramer or Hawn had ever assigned them on their behalves, Christina Paulos, the site's managing director, told Axios that "has never happened."

  • “The Well News was founded at a time when too much news was focused solely on conflict, and we are very proud of our accurate, interesting and positive coverage of issues that impact the everyday lives of our more than 5 million readers across the country,” Paulos said in an emailed statement.
  • In her statement to Axios, Kramer wrote, "Center Forward’s mission is to foster productive discussions of the issues facing Americans, and we are proud to have engaged reporters from news outlets from the Well News, Politico, Washington Post, The Hill, Wall Street Journal and Axios, among others.”

Looking ahead: TWN's promotion of political centrism means lots of coverage of congressional moderates facing tough re-election fights next year.

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