VERMONT - Partly cloudy with a chance of Orwell? Ready.gov, an online safety database, was created in 2003 in conjunction with the federal Department of Homeland Security. Now, DHS is paying a Pennsylvania ad firm to pitch "pre-written" winter-weather-preparedness articles to the national press - including Seven Days and other Vermont newspapers.
"In light of the forecasted weekend snowstorm in Burlington, now is a great time to remind your readers about the importance of preparing for winter weather," wrote a spokesman from the Pennsylvania-based Neiman Group on behalf of DHS December 14. "Along with all of the great information available at Ready.gov, we also have pre-written articles available - if you are interested, just let us know."
Ready.gov offers common-sense tips for coping with "winter storms and extreme cold," "man-made disasters as well as natural ones" and "attacks."
Last week, Seven Days requested copies of the articles. Along with winter-storm information, they include references to a 1991 U.S. Department of Commerce report that likens winter storms to "Deceptive Killers."
The Ready Campaign is administered by the Ad Council, a private marketing firm based in New York City. The council first gained notoriety for its "Loose Lips Sink Ships" campaign, a proto-homeland security PSA of the 1940s that encouraged citizens to keep silent on military matters during World War II. The Neiman Group's president is a former press secretary for Pennsylvania-Governor-turned-DHS-Secretary Tom Ridge.
"Over the past year, we've just noticed that staffing has been a little down at newspapers," Nieman spokesperson Kim Lehman* tells Seven Days, "and that a lot of newspapers have been asking us for what we're calling 'pre-written' articles. Really, they're just facts that reporters can put into their own words." Lehman says she doesn't think the "articles" have appeared in any Vermont papers.
According to Mark Bosma, public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management in Waterbury, VEM and the state branch of DHS operate out of the state's Department of Public Safety and share "overlapping interests." In September, VEM participated in September's first annual "National Preparedness Month," which was organized by the Ad Council and the Neiman Group on behalf of DHS. But Bosma reports that the Ready Campaign has no direct bearing upon Vermont's disaster-response infrastructure - he relies on intel from the National Weather Service.
How does the Vermont administrator react to the Ready Campaign's apparent conflation of winter storms and terrorism? "We let people know that it's important to be prepared for any kind of hazard," Bosma responds. "Not that we're expecting a terrorist attack, or anything like that . . . But anything can happen anywhere."
*The online version of this article has been corrected.