And thus spake Martin Meehan

Media types will tell you they view public relations people, who they often refer to as flacks, as necessary evils. PR folks will say the same about journalists, except for the necessary part.

Usually, though, there is an acknowledgement from both sides that they’re just doing their jobs, which makes a recent episode involving the Lowell Sun and the University of Massachusetts president’s office press people noteworthy.

Last week, new UMass President Marty Meehan met with students at the Boston campus for a roundtable discussion on his first day on the job. The Sun had a keen interest in the event because Meehan, the son of a former Sun compositor, is their guy, a Lowell native who represented the city in Congress for more than 14 years before becoming chancellor of UMass Lowell for the last eight years.

Shortly after the discussion ended, Meehan’s new office sent out a press release that was written as a story about the event. “As a UMass graduate and thus as someone who once sat where you sit today, it is important to me to begin this journey with students,” Meehan said to the students, according to the release.

Sun City Editor Chris Scott emailed the release to his reporter covering the event, Todd Feathers, so he’d have the quotes to use for his story. He also ran the press release almost verbatim online and presented it as a story written by the paper with a byline that simply said “The Lowell Sun.”

Feathers subsequently called Scott and said Meehan never said any of the things the UMass press release put in his mouth. “He called me a short time later and said, ‘Marty didn’t use any of these quotes, it wasn’t even close,'” Scott told CommonWealth.

Scott decided the situation was worth noting in the paper so he wrote an item for the Sun’s Sunday political notes column, which had a bit of bite to it. Scott focused on a couple quotes that he says were red flags to anyone who knows Meehan, including using the word “thus.”

“Ignoring the horrible grammar (there were English majors at the event who can teach you how to use semicolons, UMass), the quote is utter baloney. Meehan never said it, and that’s not the way he speaks,” wrote Scott. “Does anyone, much less a guy who grew up poor in Lowell, use the word ‘thus’ in speech? The real shame is that Meehan is an eloquent person and provided plenty of good quotes Wednesday.”

So why did Scott put the UMass-generated story on the newspaper’s website when he later called it “utter baloney?”

“The press release captured in spirit what Marty was saying even though it didn’t use the exact quote,” Scott said. “In this day and age, there’s a great demand to be first. I saw it, I had no reason to doubt that Marty said these things.”

University spokesman Robert Connolly, a former ink-stained wretch himself, said he was flummoxed by the item and had some email exchanges with Scott.  “I thought it was a little harsh but it was a point that they felt was worth making,” Connolly said of the Sun story. “Everybody has a right to their own opinion; that’s the way the world works.”

Connolly admits that if his office had it to do over again, it would have made changes and pointed out the comments were statements. “In hindsight we could have done a better job to make it clear these were prepared remarks,” he said. “It was a hectic day and the release went out as it was. Press releases can contain comments that were not actually spoken in the world.”

Veteran journalist and media observer Mark Leccese, now a professor at Emerson College, says there’s lessons here for everyone on how to do – and not do – your job. TheSun, he says, was on the mark in pointing out the UMass press release was a piece of fiction. But, he says, the paper ceded the high ground when it ran the story online as its own work. The UMass press office, says Leccese, was doing what they are paid to do, which is call attention to their president meeting with students. But the release either should have been rewritten with actual quotes or more readily identified the utterances as statements.

“No one has covered themselves in glory here,” says Leccese. “If you’re going to send out these press releases, you put actual quotes in – or make sure your guy says these things.”




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