The public relations company responsible for last summer's Jersey Shore tourism campaign disputed suggestions Monday that the firm won a bid for the much-sought-after contract because of an agreement to feature Gov. Chris Christie in ads.
A 233-page proposal submitted to the state for consideration by MWW, a national public affairs firm based in New Jersey's Bergen County, made no mention of the idea that Christie would appear in the "Stronger than the Storm" ads — a marketing campaign aimed at bringing tourists back to New Jersey beaches last summer, just 10 months after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the region.
The written proposal by MWW, made available to BuzzFeed by the firm, shows that Christie's role in the ads was not part of the firm's original concept. But during the second round of the bidding process, in an MWW pitch meeting with state officials last March, the possibility of Christie appearing in ads was floated "in passing," according to a person present.
The written MWW proposal suggests the state should "partner with an NJ native celebrity to serve as the Jersey Shore's brand ambassador," but does not name Christie as a possible face for the part. Instead, pages later in the proposal, MWW suggests the celebrity ambassador could appear alongside the governor at a state-sponsored ribbon-cutting.
Questions about why Christie awarded MWW the contract over three other bidding firms arose Monday morning when Rep. Frank Pallone announced that, at his request, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development has agreed to audit the use of the $25 million in federal aid put toward the marketing campaign.
Christie, his children, and his wife, Mary Pat, ultimately did star in the commercials, which featured a catchy "Stronger than the Storm" jingle that blanketed airwaves last summer. The campaign also launched during the heat of Christie's reelection campaign. His cameo, and its timing, drew ire from Democrats inside and outside the state who claimed the ads boosted Christie's profile. The Republican governor has said he's thinking about running for president in two years.
Executives at the firm said that the idea of using Christie in ads would have been included in the proposal had the firm seriously considered it at the time.
Josh Zeitz, a senior vice president with the company, said MWW's top choices for the ads were Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, two celebrities native to New Jersey. Both singers were on tour during the short time in which the ads had to be filmed and edited. After the contract was executed on April 16, said Zeitz, the firm had 10 days to produce the ads in order to meet the Christie administration's broadcast deadline of the week before Memorial Day.
"Given widely inaccurate reporting on 'Stronger than the Storm,' we welcome the Inspector General's report," Zeitz said in a statement. "It will show that MWW's proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign."
Asked about references to Christie in the pitch meeting, Zeitz said that the question "was raised" and "batted around very briefly."
"That's a far cry from 'pitched using the governor in a starring role.' When you do that, you build massive visual assets to make the point. We didn't," said Zeitz. "We emphasized the program that we outlined in the proposal, which had no mention of the governor." The mock-ups used in the pitch meeting with state officials, he said, were identical to those included in the written proposal. None featured Christie.
The decision to feature Christie in the ads was "arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability, and federal expenditure rules," said Zeitz.
Executives also stress that decisions regarding the marketing campaign were not politically motivated. Several executives at MWW have close ties to the Democratic Party. The firm's founder and CEO, Michael Kempner, raised millions for President Obama's reelection, placing him in the top tier of Democratic bundlers. And Zeitz ran for Congress as a Democrat in New Jersey's fourth district, before serving as a senior policy director to former New Jersey Gov. John Corzine, a Democrat.
Pallone's district, New Jersey's 6th, includes much of the state's coastline. The 27-year veteran of Congress has been an outspoken critic of the Sandy ads in the past. In a letter to HUD's inspector general last August, the Democrat expressed concern that the "winning bid proposed including Governor Chris Christie in the advertisements, while the lower cost proposal that was not selected did not."
Pallone's letter was spurred on by an extensive report in the Asbury Park Press last summer, said his spokesman, Ray Zacarro.
That article, published last August, quotes MWW executive Shannon Eis describing the creative development of the campaign. The PR firm, Eis is quoted as saying, "had to decide who is the strongest voice communicating that we're back from the storm, and the governor has been that voice." In another article published Monday night, the Press added that Eis "in that interview said the company made it clear that Christie would have a prominent role."
Zeitz said Eis' quote from the August article refers to a process that began in April, after the contract was awarded, not before.
Zacarro told BuzzFeed that the article was the reason Pallone drafted his letter to HUD. "The Asbury Park Press article in August of 2013 raised some serious concerns regarding the 'Stronger than the Storm' tourism commercials and the process of selecting the firm to execute them," Zacarro said. "There are also concerns about the propriety of featuring Governor Christie in the ads during the election cycle, and those questions prompted Congressman Pallone to request a review by the HUD Office of the Inspector General."
Zacarro declined to comment on whether Pallone has read the proposal submitted by MWW to the state.
The Pallone letter asks why MWW was awarded the contract over the runner-up, Sigma Group, which charged about $2.5 million less in labor costs and fees, according to the report released by the state evaluation committee tasked with choosing a firm.
A review of both Sigma and MWW's proposals shows that the former charged less in labor cost and media markups, but more overall, because of ad costs. Sigma's projected media spending totaled $21 million, whereas MWW's were $17 million. (Sigma's proposal was made available by MWW.)
"The IG's audit will show that MWW's final proposal came in at $22.255 million, while [Sigma's] was $23.725 million," Zeitz said.
Executives at MWW said their proposal focused on a comprehensive marketing campaign that included not just ads, but events across the state. The difference in strategy, they said, explains the higher labor and lower ad costs.
Of MWW's critics, Zeitz asked, "We're interested in knowing which specific programs — in which shore towns — they would have proposed cutting to bring our overall labor costs in alignment with the runner-up. Asbury Park? Cape May? Seaside Heights? Sea Isle City?"
The announcement of the inspector general audit adds to the list of controversies hanging heavy over the Christie administration. Last week, documents released to the public showed that the governor's staff closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against the mayor of nearby Fort Lee.
In a statement Monday, a Christie spokesman characterized the HUD inquiry into the Sandy campaign as standard practice.
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Christie spokesman Colin Reed said.
The audit of the Sandy campaign will take several months, Pallone's office said.