Green River Star -

By David Martin
Editor 

Response illustrates conflict of interests

 


A conflict of interest as defined by the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is “a conflict between the private interests and the official or professional responsibilities of a person in a position of trust.”

A response to the Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner’s questions regarding an article we published focused on the ethics of Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County’s public relations and marketing director having ownership in an online media company perfectly illustrates both the definition of the term “conflict of interest” and why the relationship is so problematic for MHSC.

Friday afternoon, media throughout Sweetwater County received an email from Gary Collins, marketing and public relations director for the hospital, responding to questions posed by the Rocket-Miner’s Ann Jantz. Included in the email were the questions Jantz asked as well as Collins’ responses, a copy of the original story we published two weeks ago and advertising information he felt was important to include.

The mere act of releasing his responses as an employee of MHSC to all local media gives a competitive advantage to his company, SweetwaterNOW. SweetwaterNOW posted his response word for word as an opinion shortly after that email was sent, contributing to spoil whatever angle the Rocket-Miner planned to take with the story and gave SweetwaterNOW the opportunity to beat the newspaper to publication.

As a journalist, this act means I can’t trust Collins in his role at MHSC to not disclose the subjects of potential MHSC articles I’m interested in to other media outlets, especially his own.

While much of the information any news outlet gathers will overlap with others as a result of covering the same beats, such as police and government, one of the things we do to entice our readers is to provide original work not available elsewhere. Even when one publication follows up on a story another published, they can provide a different insight into a topic, thus making those stories as important as the original articles.

Collins states in his email that he released the information to make sure everyone had the information. There were much better options available to him while maintaining a professional courtesy. For example, he could have answered those questions, then wrote and sent a press release to the media across Sweetwater County paraphrasing the hospital’s stance on the issue. This would have achieved his stated goals while allowing the Rocket-Miner the opportunity for a unique take on the story. By releasing the information as he did, Collins unabashedly shows his bias favoring SweetwaterNOW.

What should be more concerning to MHSC is Collins, as its public relations officer, is the mouthpiece of the organization and made statements that should concern the administration and board.

In a portion titled Quick Facts, Collins calls attention to a number of statements used to justify ad spending, which quickly devolves into statements aimed to disparage local newspapers. One statement made calls attention to neither newspaper having local ownership or management, which in our case isn’t totally correct. The Green River Star is a Wyoming company.

Our owner lives in Buffalo and while I do have a few guidelines to follow, I am given wide latitude in managing the operations of the newspaper.

Another statement calls attention to the Rocket-Miner being the county’s newspaper of record, with Collins claiming the county is the newspaper’s biggest advertiser and specifically bolded the words “tens of thousands of dollars per year.”

Does this mean the hospital takes issue with the newspapers not having ownership based in Sweetwater County and the Rocket-Miner being the county’s newspaper of record? As Collins’s job requires him to speak for MHSC, it would appear so.

What should be most alarming for MHSC is how Collins drafted his response. He downplays the conflict of interest while using his response to push the virtues of digital marketing, of which he and his company can benefit from. He crafted the response on the hospital’s dime and used the hospital as a means to distribute it, again showing his conflicting interests. Collins specifically mentions how shifting to digital advertising saved the hospital $1,000 in recruitment advertising. That statement immediately opens him up to questions of if knowing the hospital sought to save money, he instructed a salesperson working under him to approach departments about advertising or if Collins himself told department heads they could save money by shifting their advertising online. Either way, it brings us back to a conflict of interest for Collins.

Collins is attempting to steer the conversation away from the conflict of interest he has, but in doing so, he’s showing exactly why the conflict of interests should be examined closely.

 

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