Sunday, July 28, 2019

Thank You for Stroking

My first live televised debate was opposite Katherine Prescott, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I played the role of the bad guy.

When I got to the FOX studios, I was escorted to the “green room,” which is basically a fancy holding cell for the show’s guests. Green room mixers are usually congenial affairs where the more well-known talking heads (everyone else) use the less well-known talking heads (me) as sounding boards to practice their pitch or, more likely, to boast about their latest book.

But, given the mix of guests that morning, the mood in this particular green room was less than convivial.

There was the aforementioned Ms. Prescott, of course; her handler, (then) Brandy Anderson; yours truly; and quite coincidentally, political satirist, Chris Buckley, who was there to promote “Thank You for Smoking,” his brilliantly funny new book about lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries who he affectionately dubbed “the Merchants of Death.”  

(Quick note: at the time, I was representing two of those three industries. I hit the trifecta some years after that.)

To break the chilly silence in the room, Ms. Prescott asked Chris what his book was about, and without missing a beat he pointed to me and said, “It’s about him, actually.” It wasn’t really, but at the time there was a lot of speculation that it was about the guy I worked for, a man so Merchant-of-Death-y that “60 Minutes” did an entire segment on him entitled “Meet Dr. Evil.”

(Another quick note: I’d often wondered if that exchange—and everything else that followed—really happened as I remembered it. When I recently asked my now dear friend Brandy if I was remembering correctly, she looked up from her gazpacho, smiled, and said, “Ayup.”)

It was a seven-minute segment, which is a decent chunk of time. But under the lights, time runs faster than a dingo with a baby so it’s imperative to get your points across as quickly and effectively as possible. For five minutes we were both on our game, thrusting with sound bites and parrying with eye rolls.

But then Katherine stopped talking. She just sat there staring at me as I rattled off my talkers, which actually threw me off my game a little because—much like sex—debate is often more fun when you’re doing it with someone else.

After the segment wrapped up, I went to the green room to get my coat and noticed on my way out that Katherine was still seated on the set with a bunch of people—including Chris Buckley—standing around her. I figured she must be pretty famous.

When I got back to the office about 20 minutes later, the receptionist said Jeff Becker was hold for me. The Jeff Becker—President and CEO of the Beer Institute. (Yes, there really is a Beer Institute. This is Washington.)

Becker: “Congratulations, man. You got your first kill!”
Me: “Ummm … excuse me?”
Becker: “You didn’t hear? Prescott had a stroke during your debate. Way to go!”
Becker: “Did you hear what I just said?”
Me: “Ayup.”

Katherine recovered fully. Sadly, cancer killed Jeff in January of 2010. I saw a lot of Washington’s elite at his wake, including then-House Minority Leader John Boehner. But most impressive of all was the decked-out Budweiser Clydesdale that Anheuser Busch sent to stand vigil.

As I walked past the massive horse, I thought of the line from Buckley’s novel, “Tobacco takes care of its own.”

I always found it difficult to explain what it is I actually did for a living back then. But after Buckley’s book came out, I’d just say, “Have you read Thank You for Smoking? That pretty much sums it up.”

Monday, June 24, 2019

Taking Equal Opportunity to Extremes

“Dad, please don’t make a scene” is the request my girls make every time we step into an Apple store. This time it was Claire. We were there to get her a Mac Daddy Probe, or whatever it’s called, for Christmas.

I promised to “try.”

Things got off to an auspicious start. We were greeted by a tall, red-headed self-labeled “genius” who listened to Claire’s request, opened one of the cupboards under the Genius Bar and, finding it bare, went to the Genius Storeroom in search of the laptop. But things quickly soured when it became clear that Young Red had decided to take a Genius Break.

We stood there simmering for 10 minutes. Well, I simmered.

Then, in an effort to not make a scene, I calmly approached another genius standing alone against the wall clutching a tablet to his chest and asked if he could help us. He smiled, pointed to his right ear, extended the tablet with his left hand and gestured that he wanted me to type my request.

I was not going to type my request.

I’m not saying he wasn’t deaf. By all indications, he was profoundly deaf, which is why I knew he knew exactly what I had just said. And he knew I knew he knew.

“All I need is someone to help my daughter buy a laptop.”

He offered the tablet again, this time in both hands, head slightly bowed, eyebrows raised as if doing everything in his power to help me, which is exactly what he wanted the small but growing crowd watching us to think. And he knew I knew that’s what he was up to.

So recalling the lessons I learned in my Wonder Years from communicating with my brother, Michael, who has always been hard of hearing, I looked Tablet Boy square in the eyes and slowly and clearly articulated, “I need someone to help my daughter” – turn head slowly, point to Claire, turn head back – “buy a laptop.”

He offered me the tablet for the third time, wide smile, raised eyebrows.

“Look,” I said slowly and clearly, looking straight into his eyes, “this is very simple, I need …”

Well, I guess technically I was making a scene at this point because Young Red cut his break short and rushed over to explain to me that, “in case you were unaware,” Tablet Boy is deaf “so we would all greatly appreciate it if you would simply type your request.”

"You know exactly what I want. I told you 15 minutes ago," I said (in my head).

There wasn’t a chance in Hell I was taking that tablet from that kid’s earnestly outstretched hands. The store had gotten quiet and people were watching us. I had to think fast.

Do you remember that scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch and Sundance were trapped on a high cliff with La Forge and his men on one side and a raging river at the bottom of the cliff? Butch (Paul Newman) was trying to convince Sundance (Robert Redford) that they had to jump into the river before La Forge and his gang shot them. After arguing that he’d rather stand and fight, Sundance finally admitted he couldn’t swim.

And it was with that scene in mind when I finally “admitted” to the two Apple geniuses and the crowd we had attracted that, “I can’t read!”

Young Red could not have been more embarrassed for, well, basically all of us. He rushed back to the Genius Storeroom and got the Mac Boy Prone and gave it to Claire. I gave him my AmEx which he plugged it into his Genius register hanging from his belt. Then, not knowing exactly how to proceed, he handed the device to Claire so she could sign for her illiterate dad.

Yes, it was humiliating. But it was worth it to see the expression on Tablet Boy’s face because—understanding every word I said—he knew exactly what had just gone down. And he knew I knew he knew … even before I winked at him.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Modest Proposal for Increasing EV Sales (with Apologies to Jonathon Swift)

Even with lavish government subsidies—which are disproportionately funded by the middle class and disproportionately given to the wealthy—sales of electric vehicles remain stuck in the low single digits.

According to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA), “hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and battery electric” vehicles accounted for a mere 2.5% to 4.0% of total light-duty vehicle sales from 2012 through 2017.

It’s not that policymakers haven’t tried to encourage people to buy EVs. To date, EV owners have benefitted from direct purchase subsides of up to $7,500 from the feds and up to $5,000 from a number of states; free use of electric charging stations and reduced utility rates in their homes; free access to HOV lanes; and exemptions from various taxes, registration fees and inspection requirements. The U.S. government has even lavished $2 billion dollars on car manufacturers to encourage the production and sale of EVs.

Yet despite all these subsidies, EV sales can’t get out of park.

The US EIA report cited several factors for the “limited growth” of EV sales, including low gasoline prices, the increased fuel economy of conventional vehicles, and the “relatively high” price of new EVs. They also cited the lack of charging stations, which is “the biggest hurdle in the adoption of EVs,” according to a new study from the Rocky Mountain Institute.

It is becoming increasingly clear that if we hope to persuade the most well-off among us to purchase electric vehicles, we need to build a national network of Level 3 charging stations that would rival the network of gas stations that blankets the United States today.

It won’t be cheap. At a cost of up to $100,000 per charging station, such an ambitious undertaking would cost American taxpayers untold billions of dollars. And a project of that magnitude would require a virtual army of workers to complete.

But there is an obvious solution that is both simple and elegant: make some minor adjustments to existing child labor laws to allow children as young at 12 to help build a national network of EV charging stations.

The benefits are twofold. First, an influx of roughly 12 million kids between the ages of 12 and 14 would dramatically decrease the amount of time it would take to construct the more than 100,000 charging stations needed to match the current gasoline-station grid.

Second, the additional income these kids will bring in will help offset the higher taxes and utility bills that their parents will inevitably be hit with to help fund the construction of this new nationwide EV charging network.

To be sure, not all children will be physically capable of meeting the rigorous demands of manual labor of this kind. Others may find it difficult to adjust to an eight-hour workday on a construction site far from home. But those children can also contribute to the national effort to encourage the well-off to buy electric vehicles by serving as “gophers” at existing charging stations.

These gophers would perform small tasks for EV owners, such as washing their cars or fetching cups of coffee while the EV owners waited for their cars to charge, thereby enhancing the EV-ownership experience.

Older “gophers” who were licensed to drive would shuttle the EV owners back to their homes or offices and pick them up again after their cars were fully charged, providing a kind of “Uber-rich” service to the deserving class.

Of course, these recommendations are quite ludicrous. But considering that 90 percent of existing subsidy programs go to the top 20 percent of taxpayers, “ludicrous” doesn’t seem to be a deal-breaker when considering EV public policy.

It’s time for policymakers to rethink these Robin-Hood-in-reverse policies of EV subsidies for the rich.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Is New York Trying to Stop the American Energy Revolution?

The analogy is just too rich to ignore.

A giant tanker full of Russian liquefied natural gas sits in Boston Harbor, challenging our nation’s energy independence. Two hundred and forty-five years earlier, a merchant ship carrying 114 chests of British tea sat in the same harbor, challenging our colonial self-determination. In both cases, those ships entered Boston Harbor because of a governor’s hubris and unbridled political ambitions.

The first scenario—which was the direct result of then-Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s desire to curry favor with King George—sparked the Boston Tea Party, which escalated into the American Revolution and ultimately led to our independence from Great Britain.

The implications of the second scenario—which is the direct result of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desire to curry favor with leading environmentalists—have yet to be seen. But Gov. Cuomo would be wise to study the missteps of his historic counterpart lest he be condemned to repeat them.

Just a decade ago when we depended on OPEC and other exporters for our fuel “security,” an argument could have been made for importing Russian natural gas to generate the energy needed to heat homes, schools, hospitals and businesses during record-breaking cold winters like the one New England is experiencing this year.

But domestic natural gas production has increased so dramatically in the last ten years that the U.S. is now a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in 59 years. So why the reliance on natural gas from a Russian company that was specifically sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2014?

Despite our nation being awash in clean-burning natural gas—particularly from the abundant Marcellus Shale reservoir under West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York—New England cannot access this resource without running pipelines through New York State. But New York politicians, led by Gov. Cuomo, have banned fracking and are blocking pipeline infrastructure projects at every turn, despite the fact that Cuomo himself said, “Realistically you have to move fuel, so a pipeline is the safest way if it's done right."

According to a recent Politico article, Cuomo is taking “an increasing stand against the construction of new natural gas infrastructure” to curry favor with leading environmentalists in an effort to shore up the “weakness on his left flank” as he positions himself for a possible 2020 presidential bid.
And the political pandering seems to be paying off.

“I think environmentalists have no choice but to pay some respect to Gov. Cuomo's moves—banning fracking was a big step, and he's followed it up with some other courageous decisions” on pipelines, said climate extremist and founder of, Bill McKibben.

As a result of Cuomo’s political ambitions, New England " does not have sufficient gas infrastructure to meet demand for both home heating and power generation … when it gets cold,” according to ISO New England, the Northeast region’s electric grid operator. The energy infrastructure deficit is so severe that utilities will almost certainly be forced to implement rolling blackouts in the coldest days of winters to come, ISO New England warned.

Without access to affordable, abundant domestic natural gas, New England states are turning to other, more expensive fuel sources. In fact, the pipeline constraints have caused New England to have the most expensive spot natural gas prices in the world—including this January.

In the brutal cold snap between last Christmas and January 9, Massachusetts electrical generators burned about two million barrels of more expensive oil, “which is more than double the amount burned throughout all of 2016,” according to Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton.

All of this could be prevented, of course, if Gov. Cuomo would allow the construction of the pipeline infrastructure needed to transport affordable and desperately needed natural gas to the birthplace of the American Revolution. Not only would that prevent the now-inevitable rolling blackouts, but it would demonstrate that Cuomo, unlike his historic predecessor, is dedicated to serving the American public and not some powerful special interest.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Are electric vehicles the trans fats of the highways? A case could be made.

Back in the 1980’s when people—driven by the belief that “you can never be too rich or too thin”—relentlessly jazzercised to Richard Simmons video cassettes, trans fats were touted as a “heart healthy” way to lose weight.    

Encouraged by public interest groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which called trans fats “a great boon to American’s arteries,” food processors replaced saturated fats with trans fats in thousands of products.

Unfortunately, researchers soon discovered that trans fats were also causing 30,000 fatal heart attacks in the U.S. each year. The promised benefits of trans fats, it seems, were more hype than reality. And the same appears to be true for electric vehicles.

Once touted as the environmentally friendly substitute for internal combustion engine vehicles (ICE), new research suggests that EVs are much more expensive and significantly more toxic than their ICE counterparts.

A big part of EVs’ toxicity to both people and the planet is the process of producing the cars’ batteries. The Washington Post recently published a scathing investigative series about the dangers associated with lithium-ion battery production including: water shortages in Argentina caused by lithium mining, air and water pollution in China caused by graphite mining, and the children who are injured and killed while mining for cobalt in the Congo.

And  because of the added emissions incurred in producing car battery cells and packs, “the emissions caused by manufacturing an electric vehicle far exceeds the emissions caused by manufacturing a conventional vehicle of similar size,” according to a new report from the American Consumer Institute (ACI).

The ACI report also cited recent research by Arthur D. Little which found that EVs are much more expensive to purchase and operate. Specifically, they found that “a compact electric vehicle costs 44% more and a mid-size electric vehicle costs 60% more than their gas-fueled counterparts” over a 20-year period of ownership.

The good news—if you’re wealthy enough to afford an EV—is that they are heavily subsidized by the government. According to ACI, car buyers can qualify for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits for buying an EV and state tax credits of up to $5,000. But because EVs are so expensive to begin with these tax incentives are being lavished on the wealthy, with as much as 60% of EV subsidies going to households earning over $200,000 per year, while only 10% of electric vehicles subsidies went to households earning less than $75,000 per year.

“These explicit and implicit subsidies,” ACI wrote, “represent welfare for the rich at the cost of all taxpayers.”

In their report, ACI warns policymakers that “incentives designed to encourage electric vehicle ownership can have adverse consequences on society that outweigh their benefits.” Let’s hope they get the message before our nation’s highway arteries are clogged with these heavily polluting vehicles.

Friday, August 11, 2017

There’s a P320 in My Future

I’ve been a PR flack for 30 years and a Glock owner for just a few months. In fact, my Glock 19 is the first firearm I’ve ever purchased. But after witnessing firsthand the potential public relations crisis surrounding the Sig Sauer P320 semi-automatic pistol, I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a Sig.
I didn’t make this decision lightly.  (I understand from reading countless firearms forums that allegiance to a firearm brand can rival allegiance to a beloved sports franchise.) But I’ve read enough to know that Sig Sauer firearms in general, and the P320 specifically, are among the safest handguns on the market today. And Sig’s handling of this situation tells me that they care as much about the safety and integrity of their products as they do about their sterling reputation. And they are willing to do whatever it takes to preserve both.

Unless you’ve been wearing your ear protectors all week, you’ve heard about a video that shows the Sig P320 firing when dropped at a certain angle. Omaha Outdoors, which produced the video, was quick to point out that the P320 and all of Sig Sauer firearms meets and exceeds all U.S. standards for safety, including the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc. (SAAMI). But the fact is, at a very specific angle, the P320 does appear to fire when dropped.
Frightening stuff, right? Not really. First, as Sig points out on page 25 of the P320 owner’s manual, “Although extremely unlikely, it is still possible for any loaded firearm to discharge when dropped.” That includes Sig, Beretta, Ruger, even my Glock.
In fact, Glock has its own problems associated with having to depress the trigger when disassembling it—an issue that the P320 owner never has to worry about. Does that mean I’m going to stop firing my Glock? Not likely. I’ll just be extra careful when I take it apart.
And other pistols have other safety “issues” that the P320 does not. Some 1911 owners, for example, often install extremely light triggers to improve accuracy which, while rare, can lead to unintended discharges and serious legal consequences—issues that P320 owners simply do not have to worry about.

Looking at this issue from a PR perspective, I was really impressed with the way that leading firearms bloggers and correspondents comported themselves. As someone who is brand new to this community, I saw an amazing amount of fact-based, informative reporting on what could have been a volatile issue.
Unlike the kind of hysterical and intentionally misleading stories you often find in the general media, the firearm community showcased their expertise and rationality. Jeremy S. over at The Truth About Guns did a great article explaining the mechanics behind how the P320 failed the drop test as well as how Sig was going to fix the problem. Soldier Systems’ piece on how Sig tests their firearms was very helpful for a newbie like myself to understand exactly what was going on. And Mark Keefe at the American Rifleman wrote a great piece putting the P320 “sharknado” of concern into perspective while providing helpful context. He even wryly reminds us that “The first lesson is that dropping guns, regardless of on what axis, is bad.”

The fact is guns are inherently dangerous, which is why all responsible gun owners practice safe gun handling. And that’s also why responsible gun owners have made Sig Sauer one of the most popular firearms company on the planet—because compared to other leading gun manufacturers, their safety record is outstanding.
I’m looking forward to hearing the details of the Sig P320 voluntary upgrade on Monday. In the meantime, I plan to keep calm and Sig on.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Allergan's blog post is nothing to sneeze at

Did the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company really publicly vow to “not engage in price gouging actions or predatory pricing”?

Yes, Allergan president and CEO Brent Saunders really did, in a blog that he posted on the company’s website this morning.

When I learned about the blog post from an article on, I jumped to the post itself looking for fodder for a piece I planned to write about the dangers of making false promises in the digital age. I mean, we live in the era of the 300 EpiPen, where you have to increase the price of your pharmaceutical products by 4,000 percent before anybody pays attention to you. There was no way Allergan’s CEO promised to “take price increases no more than once per year and, when we do, they will be limited to single-digit percentage increases.”

But he did. And he encouraged his CEO peers to do the same.

And while this is fascinating in itself and good news for shareholders (Allergan closed up 1.34%), what I found most intriguing about Saunders’ blog post is that it was a textbook example (or would that be a “kindle example” now) of effective 21st century communications.

Here are four lessons you need to learn from one of the most unlikely blog posts on the Internet today.

You have to have something significant to say. I’ll admit I struggled a bit as I waded through the first few paragraphs of corporate-speak about “commitment to innovation, access and responsible pricing ideals” before I got to “we will limit price increases.” But then I was hooked.

You have to be candid. Check this out. Not only does Saunders vow that, “We will not engage in the practice of taking major price increases without corresponding cost increases as our products near patent expiration,” but he accentuates the point by admitting they have done just that in the past. “While we have participated in this industry practice in the past, we will stop this practice going forward.” That’s gold, Jerry! GOLD!

It helps to speak from the heart. I’m sure Saunders’ post had to get cleared by Legal, but it still contains the language of a man who is being honest. One small example: “I don’t like what is happening, and despite the fact that it is hard to speak out publicly on this, now is the time to take action to spell out what this social contract means to me.” 

Deliver a call to action. A good blog post inspires. A great one directs people to act. And Saunders does just that. “For our industry to remain a vibrant and important part of the healthcare ecosystem, Allergan commits to this social contract and I encourage others to formulate their own self-policing actions.”

It’s not often that I am impressed by a corporate blog post, especially one signed by the CEO. But this one is worth the read.