PETALING JAYA, 7 June 2010: The New York Times (NYT) has retracted its statement that an advertisement in its paper, congratulating Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor for an award, was placed by the Malaysian government.
NYT director of public relations Abbe Serphos said in an e-mail sent out on 1 June, “In our internal systems the ad was reserved as a Government of Malaysia ad, but in fact the ad was not placed by the Government of Malaysia. The ad was signed by ‘Family and friends in the USA and Malaysia.’”
When pressed further as to who exactly had paid for the ad, Serphos said in an e-mail sent on 2 June: “It is not our practice to release the names of those who place ads. We can tell you that the ad was not paid for by the Government of Malaysia.”
Serphos had earlier sent out a two-line e-mail on 28 May requesting a correction to the article without providing any clarification.
Her second e-mail, sent out on 1 June, was in response to The Nut Graph‘s request for further clarification. The Nut Graph had asked why it took NYT 18 days after our report, which stated the ad was placed on behalf of the Malaysian government by an ad agency, to realise it had made a mistake and alert us.
The Nut Graph‘s original story about the ad quoted Diane McNulty, who is NYT executive director of community affairs and media relations. McNulty appears to outrank Serphos.
The Nut Graph had originally contacted NYT on 29 April by e-mail about the two-page colour ad that congratulated the prime minister’s wife for having been awarded a little-known International Peace and Harmony Award. The ad was signed off: “Best wishes from family and friends in USA and Malaysia.”
McNulty had replied within 24 hours to say, “The advertisement was placed by an ad agency on behalf of the government of Malaysia.” Her response was also copied to senior vice-president of advertising Alexis Buryk and senior vice-president of corporate communications Robert H Christie.
Subsequently, The Nut Graph sent another e-mail asking how much the ad cost. McNulty responded to say that the company could not disclose that information.
However, research on previous full-page ads taken out in NYT suggests that the cost of such advertisements ranges from US$180,000 to US$230,000. This amounts to between RM580,000 and RM740,000 for a one-page ad.
The Nut Graph then sent several other e-mails asking for more information, before we published our report on 11 May, but McNulty stopped responding.
More unanswered questions
After Serphos’s first e-mail requesting for a correction, The Nut Graph also asked what transpired in the 18 days after our report was published that was compelling NYT to retract its earlier statement. We asked whether NYT was, for example, experiencing pressure from its clients or whether the company was likely to lose future contracts.
We also asked how an executive director could give out the wrong information, which was also copied to her superior and the advertising department, when dealing with a media enquiry that transpired over several days.
And finally, The Nut Graph asked, “If it wasn’t the Malaysian government who ordered the ad, which individual or organisation did?”
It was after that e-mail that Serphos said the mistake was an “internal” one and that “the ad was signed by ‘Family and friends in the USA and Malaysia.’”
The Nut Graph replied to say that we were aware how the ad had been signed off but that did not explain who actually ordered and paid for the ad. This led to Serphos reiterating that the ad was not paid for by the Malaysian government and that it was not NYT practice to reveal who took out ads in the paper.
The Nut Graph has since written to both Serphos and McNulty to clarify the contradiction between their different positions about releasing such information. To date, we have not heard from either.
Business council weighs in
At the same time as NYT was corresponding with The Nut Graph, the Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU) which had conferred the award on Rosmah also wrote in to us.
BCIU president Peter J Tichansky said in an e-mail sent on the night of 1 June:
“It has come to our attention that your online publication has raised several questions with regard to an advertisement taken in The New York Times on April 16, 2010. I would expect that these questions by this time would have been clarified to you directly by the New York Times.”
He said it was “unfortunate that a well-intended gesture of welcome and congratulations” to honour “Malaysia’s First Lady” as an award recipient “may have become something of a political issue”.
“We regret that this matter has caused some controversy in Malaysia,” he added.
Tichansky stressed the council’s “respect for the humanitarian and charity work” of Rosmah, adding that she was “a deserving recipient” of the inaugural award.
No response was forthcoming from Tichansky when The Nut Graph asked if BCIU was the one who paid for the ad.
Additionally, Tichansky’s e-mail was also sent to Henry Thomas Jones of Laurus Group DC. Jones, who is better known as either Henry or Hank Jones, is the chairperson of the Laurus Group, Washington.
Jones replied to Tichansky after reading Tichansky’s e-mail to The Nut Graph, and surprisingly copied us in an e-mail we received on 2 June, saying: “This is great. Thank you! Please send, and I’ll forward to Joh.”
It remains unclear who “Joh” is.
According to Intelligence Online, a site dealing with global strategic intelligence, Laurus Group, Washington is a “small public relations firm”. A check on the Laurus Group DC site reveals that it is under construction.
Further online research, however, shows that Jones formerly worked at Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a lobbying firm in America, and the International Republican Institute (IRI), a conservative think tank. Barbour Griffith & Rogers is a powerful Washington lobbyist and has been described by The Economist as “perhaps the most powerful lobbying firm” in the US.
In an Albanian website, translated here, an interview with Jones from “The Laurus Group based in Washington” revealed that he has over 20 years of experience in political campaigns, and that he was the former IRI director in Macedonia from 1998 to 2002.
There are also press releases and articles in 2007 within the PR Newswire sites that cite “Hank Jones from The Laurus Group” as a source for stories which appear to handle the public relations for Serbian, Nigerian and Angolan business and political interests.
The Nut Graph has since written to Jones to ask him what his involvement is in the ad placement. We have also asked Jones if Laurus Group DC was involved in lobbying for Najib’s meeting with President Barack Obama in the US in mid-April which the US media scantly reported on, and in Rosmah being conferred the award. We have also asked him who “Joh” is.
No response has been forthcoming thus far.
Government remains silent
The Nut Graph also contacted both the Prime Minister’s Office and Malaysia’s ambassador to the US, Datuk Seri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis, on 5 and 6 May when we first started working on the story.
Both offices confirmed receiving our questions but neither responded to deny the government’s involvement in the placement of the ad.
After our 11 May story was published that said that the ad was placed on behalf of the Malaysian government, we also contacted the Prime Minister’s Office again but the government continues to keep mum.
See also: Rosmah ad placed on govt’s behalf
The Nut Graph needs your support