This interview is a companion to Behind the Book Burning, a closer look at the public affairs marketing around the 2011 Troy Library Millage. For the whole story, check out the main post.
Very soon after I began looking for the facts behind the Book Burning Party awards case study, Phillip Kwick‘s name stood out. Kwick was one of the loudest voices speaking about the library’s role in the Book Burning campaign, and has been an active participant in community issues in Troy, where he works as the library’s assistant director. When library advocacy blog Books for Walls Project posted about the campaign, Kwick’s comment cut to the heart of the matter:
You, the Book Burners, claim you wanted to ”turn the rational conversation into an emotional one.” Clearly, you have not followed this issue as closely as you claim. This is not an emotional issue?
Then you have never spoken to one member of the Friends of the Troy Library who poured heart, soul, and donations into trying to win the November millage. Nor to the current Save Troy organizers, who have gone door-to-door with tireless zeal, explaining to their neighbors the importance of a library to the community.
You have never read the Books for Walls Project blog, whose writers – though they live 250 miles away – have championed the cause of the Troy Library, not only to the State but in Europe and beyond. You have never read any of the posts on the Letters to the Children of Troy on blogs around the world. You have never read one of the hundreds of comments on the Library’s website.
You have never stepped foot into the Troy Library to see children streaming in, with their parents unable to catch up. Or the lines of unemployed waiting to register for computer classes.
And certainly, you have never talked to a Library staff member who has spent the past two years listening to this outpouring of emotion for the Library from the public, while riding her own emotional roller coaster.
And now your comment seems to be taking credit for some “new” emotional response you have imagined you created: “Today, people are talking. They’re talking online, talking on the phone, and talking over their fence. They’re talking about books and what it means to lose a library.” And you think this is because of you?
I am appalled.
You did nothing to help support the Troy Public Library on August 2. All you did was cause confusion that Library supporters have been trying to avoid at all costs, as the previous elections were confused enough. All you did was add more divisiveness and bickering in a community that should be united on its love and need for a library. All you did was violate election laws in pursuit of political satire. And all you did was add no signs on the streets and avenues in Troy where none existed.
You have done nothing to help support the Troy Library. Do not take any credit from the hardworking women and men who have.
Next time, I would suggest you try your political theatre in Royal Oak, where your signs claim your office is. Or in Livonia, where your treasurer works. Or in Detroit, where your committee is registered. That would help support the Troy Public Library more.
P.S. While I am employed by the Troy Library, these comments reflect my own views.
Clearly, someone with a bone to pick with the campaign. But it was perplexing to me at the time–wasn’t the library the one who set up this campaign?
So I tracked Kwick down, and he gave me the lowdown on how everything appeared to have happened from where he sat inside the library.
How long have you been working with the Troy library?
PK: I’ve been here since January of ’98, this is my 15th year. I grew up in Hamtramck, I still live there.
I started digging around, and found some of your commentary, and it seems like this thing didn’t go down as it’s purported to have. So I’m trying to dig around and see if this was sanctioned by the library.
PK: I think your initial sense is correct, from my point of view. It’s a weird situation in Michigan. We are actually prohibited from taking an official position, yes or no, on the millage. So that’s why there’s no official position, because technically we didn’t play a role in the millage. It was run by the Friends of the Library, a political action committee set up specifically to pass the millage, so the city has to be hands-off and our role is to only to be putting out the information on the millage. “This is what would happen if there was a yes vote, this is what would happen if there was a no vote.” But not any advocacy. So any role that I played, I played as an individual, not on work time, as a supporter of the groups that were doing the millage.
Now, again, I’m an interested party because I work in Troy, but I don’t live in Troy so it didn’t impact me as a member of the public. So in that case I was very aware of my role as a library staff member, but not as somebody who would have to pay the millage.
The City of Troy and the Troy Public Library is listed as the client of the campaign. It implies the ad agency was employed and engaged, on however small a budget, by the city of Troy to develop this Book Burning Campaign. You’re listed as the client in all this work.
PK: That’s absolutely false. We became aware of it because we were driving down the street and the signs appeared in the middle of the boulevard in Troy. It happened fairly late in the game. The first we caught wind of it was July 6th, less than a month before the millage. It was almost two months after the millage date was set, so it was fairly late in the campaign. The millage went on the ballot in mid-May, because we thought we were going to shut down May 1st. The council gave us some reprieve, gave us some bridge funding, and put it on the ballot. That was all wrapped up before May 15. This campaign actually came pretty late in the game, in terms of organizing for the millage.
We had no knowledge of it. I used to be on city council in my community, so I’m pretty familiar with local election laws, and I tried to find out exactly who was behind it. The paperwork they filed with the county, their election paperwork, and the disclaimer on the material they were putting out had different addresses on it, which is a violation of campaign law. I tried to investigate some of the addresses that were on there, and the treasurer, who’s the only person you need to have on your campaign finance documents, had a Detroit address, so I had several people try to call him, to figure out who he was. He was listed as a realtor, not as a member of this ad agency. I drove by the Detroit house [the group was registered to], it looked like it was unoccupied, it could very well have been a house he was prepping for sale. The address that was actually on the printed material was a Royal Oak address, again, odd because it’s a Troy campaign. I drove by it, it’s a Mailboxes, Etc. type thing, they were renting a box.
The whole thing was very suspect to me. And I couldn’t understand why. Nobody really understood it. We assumed it wasn’t an actual no campaign, it wasn’t an actual book burning campaign, but it was completely unclear what it was. It caused mass confusion. They were filming, they were going outside the library after the library was closed, filming the books, posting them on YouTube, saying things like “These look like a good place to start the fires,” so much so that the police got involved in it, and were investigating, and looking at it, because it was unclear what was going on.
What were initial reactions around the library when they saw this Book Burning Party stuff? What were your peers saying?
PK: Mostly it was confusion. There was some outrage, by the people working on the campaign. The initial reaction by people who were working on the campaign was “Is this another No campaign?” I think the initial language was “Vote No on August 5th, then join the Book Burning Party” or something, so any appearance of a No sign created initial anger on the part of people working on the campaign. Within the library, and people I talked to a little more closely, there was a lot of confusion.
We couldn’t believe that somebody on the No side would actually undertake a campaign like this, although it’s been a vicious couple of years here. There was a lot of Tea Party involvement. We didn’t believe it could actually be a campaign like that, and that it must have been some kind of bizarre psychological thing that was completely unclear. There was either anger or confusion about it. And that persisted for a long time. We tried to contact those people, we tried to figure out who it was, but every time we did it seemed like there was some kind of a front thrown up. The treasurer wouldn’t return our calls.
So we started to go onto this guys website, post comments, things like that, trying to “out” him. This is the treasurer of the committee, we had his name, so we’d go on the Book Burning Facebook page, and on the Book Burning Twitter feed, and we’d try and ask these guys questions, and name him by name, and all of our comments were being taken down. Whenever we said “is this real? What’s your point? What are you doing with this?” They’d take them down, they’d remove our comments immediately from the social media pages.
From reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment.
My initial thoughts, from reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment. Because lots of the comments were coming from younger people who did not live in the city, so I’m thinking maybe these people used to live here, and maybe they went to school, and this is a fun experiment, or something. But it caused a ton of confusion.
The worst part was that the previous two campaigns on the library millage were very dirty, and full of dirty tricks, basically, on the part of the No vote. It was really very nasty. They put competing ballots on the ballot to cause confusion. It was just a mess. In fact, in the previous election, in July of ’10, the Friends put a ballot issue on, and then those voting No put on four different ballot issues, with all slightly different millage amounts. And you only need 50 signatures, so they all got on the ballot. And so it caused a ton of confusion. That millage only lost by 300 votes, out of 18,000.
So you guys were already running uphill essentially at this point, against actual political operatives.
PK: There was already confusion, the previous year and a half had been very nasty, the library had taken a lot of shots, the city manager had taken a lot of shots, the Tea Party folk, the No folk, were very aggressive. So when this campaign popped on the scene, the Yes people started blaming the Tea Partiers, saying “Look how nutty the Tea Partiers are.” The Tea Partiers were saying “we had nothing to do with this, this is the Yes people trying to drum up support.” It even muddied the waters further, it created a more negative campaign in an environment where the Yes vote was trying to create a positive one. I think that was the most damaging part.
When did you realize a big ad agency was behind this?
PK: It was near the end. I was watching the financial reports very closely. In Michigan you have to file a campaign committee report ten days before the election. I think at that point they filed one that said there was a donation from Leo Burnett, like $7,500, a ton of money for a one-person donation. At that point we realized ‘This is an ad agency, what’s going on?’ It was quite late in the game, and it was about that time that they came clean, through a letter posted on a website called Books Without Walls.
But at that point, they guy sort of came clean, he said “Oh, we’re running this campaign to show how absurd it is to close the library,” but at that point they never mentioned mentioned they were from Leo Burnett. So it was very late in coming out.
The Books for Walls project, booksforwallsproject.org, these were supporters of the library, that’s the first place where they sort of came clean, and at that point it was “Well, we’re just library supporters who want to make sure this passed.” They said nothing about a tie to an ad agency.
So what was the reaction then?
PK: Well, again, I think it was really late in the game. When people felt they were duped was a couple of months later was when we saw the YouTube video they put up. The case study.
On July 14th, the millage was August 5th, they posted on this website, basically, coming clean, and at that point they signed themselves Safeguarding American Families, which was the name of their committee. They didn’t say anything about it being an ad-funded campaign, nor funded by the city, certainly, because that’s not true. They basically said it would lead you to believe it was a group of people who put this together thinking that this was a cool thing, they were just well-meaning. That was the way it came out. There was no mention of them being tied to Leo Burnett. Then we found that out within a week, six or eight days before the election, when they had to file their first report. We thought, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?”
I don’t think we pieced it all together until we saw the video, a while after the campaign, and thought “these people are taking credit for this.” It came out quite a bit, several months afterwards.
They were taking credit for saving the library.
They were taking credit for saving the library. People then had a level of annoyance, the campaign was over, and people weren’t quite as angry as they might have been if it failed, or if it was still in the middle of it. People were, after the fact, angry about it. I posted some comments on the Leo Burnett YouTube page, basically, what I’m telling you. This didn’t save the library. This caused more harm than good. This potentially jeopardized the library.
And the city manager’s office here got a call from Leo Burnett, saying “we’re really a good corporate citizen here, you should probably take down those comments.” I’ll say I was asked to take those down. When your boss asks you to do something, you do it. So those comments lasted about a day on their site, and then I was asked to take them down, so I removed them from the YouTube site. They didn’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of this campaign. I didn’t realize at that point they were going after awards, that pissed me off even more.
So that was the only time the agency tried to contact you, was to ask you to take down negative comments?
PK: Yep. The tie to Leo Burnett didn’t make a lot of sense to any of us. Why did they fund this? What happened to these individuals who seemed to be taking credit for this? Why was it funded by this agency? It was only after the fact that we started to piece things together.
Not only was it impossible for them to be Troy Library’s ad agency…
PK: Legally, it was not possible.
Not only that, but also they didn’t even consult you, they didn’t say “Hey, we want to do this thing,” they didn’t ask for permission?
PK: As a local community activist in my own community, aside from the confusion that the campaign created, and the bad feelings it created, and the negative vibe, my personal feeling when it was going on, especially when I realized one address was Detroit and one address was Royal Oak in a campaign that has to deal with Troy, my personal reaction was “this is a lousy way to do politics…”
You don’t just move in and think that you know better than a community does in how to run a campaign, and move in without asking anybody, and working with the players. Even if you want to be anonymous and do a cute idea, you come in and you work with people, you don’t come in and try to take over a campaign. That’s what I felt. Why is this group coming in, and pretending to know better than us, and running this campaign that may or may not be helping the issue itself. What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.
What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.
So, what happens now? When will the next millage take place?
PK: Our millage is for five years. City government thought that they couldn’t sell anything longer than five years. So we’re going to be gearing up for it soon, it’s been a year, so we’re going to be gearing up for it in another three years. So we have a bit of a reprieve, but unfortunately we thought some of the nuttiness was going to die down, but the council has a majority-Tea Party presence over the last few years, and it’s gotten even crazier. Even though the library has not been the focus of the attack over the last year, the public workers and city services have been.
We have a bit of a respite, but if the political situation doesn’t change with the next election or two, who knows what it’s going to be like in the next few years before we have to go back before the voters.
Every one of these advertising awards shows is listing the Troy Public Library for the client of this work, and based on what you’ve told me that seems patently false.
PK: It is. There may very well be some library supporters who are kinder to them, because it’s after the fact, who will say “Well, they tried to help out, they were well-meaning,”1 but what I can definitively say is that this hit us out of the blue, and unless someone did it very secretly, nobody authorized it, not the city, not the Friends, not the Yes voters. I can say that very definitively, because nobody knew what was going on.
- This was a sentiment several library supporters shared, almost glad that the whole thing was over, noting how especially irritated Kwick was over the whole thing. They all kind of echoed the ironically frequently misquoted aphorism “It’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” [↩]