“It’s not a story,” said Dave Lyghtle when I told him I was working on an article about his employment by the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) at the OID Board meeting last week.
Lyghtle is Public Relations Director for Marcia Hermann Design of Modesto. According to the agency’s website, Lyghtle believes, “an effective public relations strategy is a valuable component of building and maintaining any organization’s brand and reputation.”
In November, the OID Board of Directors voted to renew OID’s contract with Marcia Hermann Design in part because, “Due to the resignation of the Oakdale Leader’s Reporter [sic] for the District, Marcia Herrmann Design has been filling this roll [sic] since June. Marcia Herrmann Design has been able to provide a more positive, fair and accurate media coverage of the District.”
Marcia Hermann Design receives $165 an hour from the OID. Much of the “more positive, fair and accurate media coverage” of the OID appears without attribution in the Oakdale Leader. In essence, the Oakdale Leader prints press releases written by Dave Lyghtle without a byline or disclaimer, as though the reports were written by the Oakdale Leader’s staff.
Compare, for example, the December 10 report of an OID Board Meeting with Lyghtle’s press release. The December 10 edition of the Oakdale Leader features word-for-word replication of the December 9 OID press release with some cuts. There is no byline or attribution. While this practice is increasingly common, it’s a clear violation of the journalistic code of ethics .
What makes this case worse is that the press release was written not by OID staff but by a public relations person whose agency is paid $165 an hour to burnish OID’s image and reputation.
That’s not all. Lyghtle also comments on local news stories about OID and sometimes uses a pseudonym. In neither case does he identify himself as a highly paid public relations person hired by the Oakdale Irrigation District.
When he commented on a story in The Valley Citizen, he used the name “Paul Harvey.” I recognized Lyghtle’s style and called him out.
Lyghtle claims both the Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District employ public relations agencies. We’re going to check that out. We’re also going to ask whether the Modesto Bee or Turlock Journal prints press releases generated by public relations persons without attribution.
In the meantime, we have calls in to Marg Jackson of the Oakdale Leader, and Frank Clark, who is on the OID Board of Directors. We would like to know whether Ms. Jackson and Mr. Clark would go on the record as approving of publishing press releases generated by public relations agencies without attribution. Thus far, neither Mr. Clark nor Ms. Jackson has returned our calls.
The question is especially pertinent to Mr. Clark and other members of the OID Board of Directors because paid public relations for the OID amounts to paid political advertising for incumbent directors. Suffice to say, Mr. Lyghtle would not continue to be employed by OID if he were critical of OID policy or directors.
In recent years, the Oakdale Irrigation District has engaged in the highly controversial practice of selling water outside the region. We believe local citizens who follow water issues should know the OID is paying a public relations agency $165 an hour to generate “positive” media coverage. We also believe Valley citizens should know when local media publish public relations press releases without attribution.
Dave Lyghtle says, “It’s not a story.” I told him we’d let our readers decide.