Scandals, scoops and Silver Anvils: After 40+ years of journalism & PR, Roger Martin is retiring

In News, Professional/Networking by Roger Martin

By Roger Martin, APR, Partner

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Most of you interested enough to read this blog (warning: it’s really long) likely already know I’m soon retiring after 40+ years as a political and investigative journalist and then a public relations professional and business owner. If that’s news to you, rest assured it’s not fake. I’ve confirmed it, on-the-record, with the primary source and subject.

Just so we are all up to date with the essential details: effective Dec. 31, my ownership and leadership position ends at Martin Waymire (MW), the kick-ass strategic communications firm founded by David Waymire and me nearly 18 years ago. David and I have sold the firm to three MW team members who are also exceptionally talented public relations professionals and, more important, good people. But enough about them for now. You can read more about the future of MW below or in the news release linked just above. The top of this blog (novelette) is for the good stuff — content about my career. 😊

I was encouraged to write a farewell blog reflecting on my years in big-city journalism and public relations that started in the late 1970s. As a journalist, I had the privilege and opportunity to report and write literally thousands of stories, including some proverbial blockbusters. For better or worse, some are now important chapters, or at least footnotes, in Michigan’s and in certain cases the nation’s history. In public relations, the two firms I helped found and grow specialized in the space where politics, public policy and communications intersect. Without question, some of the policies we helped to advance continue to effect – and, I would argue, significantly benefit – Michigan every single day.

So here we go. First, I look back on my years in journalism, then I’ll move on to my 31 years at Rossman Martin & Associates and MW. I’ve done my best to confirm accuracy where my memories and recollections were fuzzy. If something I write here is inaccurate, my sincere apologies.

The Golden Age of Journalism

I was fortunate to be a journalist from the late 1970s to 1991 during some of the profession’s most celebrated years. Among my mentors and colleagues at The Detroit News were/are some of the most outstanding journalists of the past 50 years, including Nolan Finley, Charlie Cain, George Weeks, Joanna Firestone, Bryan Gruley, Mark Hornbeck, Eric Freedman, Jim Mitzelfeld, George Bullard, Pat Shellenbarger, Ben Burns, Mark Haas, Bob Giles, and more (apologies to those I missed or forgot – I know there were more.) Here are some of the big stories I broke or was part of covering.

Surrogate Parenting Arrangement Gone Bad

Surrogate parenting in the early 1980s was new and hyper controversial. Critics called it “baby selling.” Supporters viewed it as a viable and ethical new way for women medically unable to carry a child to have one. In 1982 and 1983, Lansing was home to the first surrogate parenting arrangement in the nation to go terribly wrong, making headlines across the globe and becoming a national media circus.

In brief, a New York accountant named Alexander Malahoff entered into a surrogate parenting contract with a married couple from Lansing, Ray and Judy Stiver. Judy Stiver agreed to bear Malahoff’s child for a fee of $10,000. Tragically, the baby was born with severe medical issues, nearly dying shortly after birth. Malahoff refused to pay the Stivers, insisting the baby’s blood type was clear evidence the child could not be his. The Stivers held firm that it was Malahoff’s child, retained an attorney, and sought media attention to help compel payment.

I was alone in The Detroit News Lansing Bureau the morning Ray Stiver called asking to speak to a reporter. He was calling from a pay phone because the family did not have a phone at their house. He gave me their home address in a working-class neighborhood just north of downtown Lansing. I drove there immediately, interviewed the couple, and we broke the story the next day on page 1 of The Detroit News. For several days, The News literally owned the story because I was the only reporter anywhere who knew where the family lived. Given the dispute, the story was of course picked up by the Associated Press and other wire services and moved across the world.

Soon other reporters discovered where the Stivers lived when attorneys for both sides started doing regular media interviews. After that, the story literally exploded. I’ll spare all the details, but eventually the Stivers and Malahoffs agreed to DNA testing to prove the child’s paternity. Given the crush of media attention and interest, both sides agreed to release the DNA test results on the Phil Donohue Show, a pioneering television talk show broadcast nationwide that was the first to include audience participation (the 1980s version of Ellyn or Oprah). Because of my role in breaking the story and many subsequent important twists and turns, Donohue’s producers invited me to be in the audience to cover the DNA test results. For my first “big” story, I ended up on national TV, although even then I wished the circumstances had been different for all involved. So who was the father of Christopher Ray Stiver? It was Ray Stiver, not Malahoff.

Sneaking into the Governor’s Residence in Early 1983

Soon after Michigan Democrat Gov. Jim Blanchard was elected to his first term in 1982, it became clear he was going to propose an income tax increase to help right the state budget, battered by the early 1980s national recession. I was a new reporter in The News Lansing Bureau and was literally unknown to any of the state’s politicos, including Blanchard and his team and the state legislators also elected in 1982.

One day early in 1983 we learned that Blanchard had invited Republican legislators to the Governor’s Residence for an evening reception. The veteran reporters in the bureau surmised that Blanchard was going to use the event to lobby GOP lawmakers for votes for his tax plan. (As for me … I didn’t have a clue what on Earth was even going on as I was literally just a couple of weeks into this political reporting gig.)

News Bureau Chief Pat Shellenbarger, a terrific reporter and savvy journalist, looked at me and said (this is not verbatim but close): “Roger, you are going to attend the reception tonight. The Governor’s staff won’t know you, and the lawmakers won’t know you, and the Governor’s staff won’t ask for ID at the door because they won’t want to offend the legislators. Go to the door, check in using your real name, mingle and then let us know what happened. If they don’t let you in, well, you tried.”

I was scared s—less. But I had a mission – which I completed. Sure enough, it did not take long for Blanchard to call his guests together for remarks and make his pitch for their votes. I immediately left, wrote down notes in the car, returned to the Lansing Bureau and briefed Shellenbarger and the other reporters on what happened. I was then directed to write a column about the event, which was published in the next day’s Detroit News. Needless to say, Blanchard and his communications staff were livid.

Dick Chrysler, GOP Candidate for Governor

Then-Brighton businessman Dick Chrysler was one of three Republicans seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 1986. An entrepreneur and self-made millionaire, Chrysler emerged from relative obscurity by spending millions of his own money on slick TV and radio ads to vault into the lead over then-Wayne County Sheriff Bill Lucas, Oakland County Executive Daniel T. Murphy and state Rep. Colleen Engler. I was assigned to cover the campaigns and report and write in-depth feature stories on each of the three GOP candidates.

Chrysler (no relation to the vehicle brand and family) was a car guy, an accomplished inventor who designed the world’s first automobile “T-tops” literally in his house. Soon the Big 3 automakers and others were contracting with his company, Cars & Concepts, to install T-tops in mass-produced vehicles.

Many rumors circulated about Chrysler’s business dealings at Cars & Concepts. One of the tips we received turned out to be true. We chased down the tip and published a series of stories reporting that some Cars & Concepts employees told The News that, in 1978, senior Cars & Concepts officials encouraged them to give up their salaries and apply for unemployment benefits but continue to report for work. Three of the employees passed lie detector tests The News arranged. The reporting literally torpedoed the campaign. So devastating was one of the stories that a friend of mine, who was one of Chrysler’s lead fundraisers, called me the night the story broke to report that major donors were pulling campaign funding pledges and demanding their money back. “You just killed our campaign,” he told me.

Several other Detroit News journalists played key roles in helping to nail down the story, including Joanna Firestone and the late Charlie Cain. In addition to ending Chrysler’s candidacy, the stories earned me “Best Reporter in Michigan” honors from a Detroit magazine.

The Keating 5

Then senior Michigan U.S. Sen. Don Riegle, D-Flint, was poised to assume the chair of the powerful Senate Banking Committee in the late 1980s. Detroit News Washington Bureau reporter Michael Clements and I were dispatched to take a closer look at Riegle’s career and highly respected work in Congress on behalf of the state of Michigan. When reporters set off on this type of assignment, the first place they turn to are the politician’s campaign finance reports to find out who is giving the politician money – and why.

At this same time, the nation’s savings and loan (S&L) industry was plunging into crisis after decades of risky and unsustainable loan practices. More than 1,000 S&Ls would fail, costing U.S. taxpayers an estimated $132 billion, based on estimates from the U.S. General Accountability Office. The banking industry publications were filled with stories about a particularly troubled institution named Lincoln Savings and Loan. Riegle’s campaign finance disclosures showed many contributions from executives and officers employed by or tied to Lincoln Savings and Loan and its parent corporation. To find out more, we dug into records and worked our sources in Washington, including those at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB), which regulated S&Ls.

Soon we learned that Lincoln’s top executives were lobbying Riegle and four other prominent U.S. senators to get the FHLBB to back off its investigation of Lincoln. Each senator was from a state where Lincoln and its owners did business or had powerful political ties. The four other senators were John McCain, R-Arizona; Alan Cranston, D-California; Dennis DeConcini, D-Arizona; and John Glenn, D-Ohio. The lobbying efforts included private meetings with Lincoln Savings officers and the five senators and their staffs. At least one meeting also included FHLBB regulators, who were summoned by the senators.

Our stories detailed Lincoln’s lobbying efforts, the meetings with the senators and FHLBB, and the more than $1.3 million in campaign contributions that flowed to the five lawmakers from the S&L’s owner Charles Keating and other executives and officers. Soon, other media locked on and a classic Washington scandal involving the senators – dubbed the “Keating 5” – was born. As a result, the Senate Ethics Committee launched a lengthy investigation of the senators’ actions. In 1991, the committee determined that Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle broke no laws but had improperly interfered with the FHLBB’s probe. Cranston was officially reprimanded, while Glenn and McCain were scolded for “poor judgment.”

The collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan cost the federal government – in other words taxpayers like you and me — $3.4 billion. Keating ended up in prison for fraud.

The Crash of Flight 255

Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed just before 9 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1987, seconds after taking off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, killing 148 passengers and all six crew members. The only survivor was a 4-year-old girl. At the time, it ranked as the nation’s second-deadliest plane crash.

I was part of large team of Detroit News reporters assigned to cover the disaster. Specifically, News reporters Bryan Gruley, Joel Smith and I were tasked with finding out how and why the plane crashed. Information about the crash can be found on multiple online channels (most seem to be largely accurate). Because this crash still occasionally haunts me to this day, I’m going to spare you the details of the crash scene and the year-plus federal investigation that followed. Our reporting team was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for our coverage of the crash (we placed second but did not win).

Yes, the “Old Days” Were Better

Most of my journalism years were spent covering politics and politicians, including Michigan state government and the Legislature, three presidential elections, and at least three U.S. Senate elections. I had the honor and privilege of meeting many presidential candidates – I estimate more than 25 — and four U.S. presidents. The candidates were men and women, hard-right Republicans to far-left Democrats, Libertarians, Green Party members, and on and on. I can’t say I liked all of them (and the feelings were probably mutual). What I can say is that every single one of them had some redeeming quality: a terrific family, a track record of helping people through charity or philanthropy, undeniable public policy achievements, incredible business success, and more. From what I recall and from what we reported, none was a habitual liar, a serial adulterer, or a proven business and tax cheat.

Public Relations Successes

I would observe that my journalism stories are perhaps more interesting to tell in detail than are the successes I’ve been part of at two Michigan-based PR firms: first from 1991 to 2004 at Rossman Martin & Associates and at Martin Waymire from 2004 to now. But interesting aside, our PR victories have in most regards delivered far more tangible benefits to our amazing state of Michigan. Following are brief snapshots of some of those and other PR career highlights.

Winning Two Silver Anvils at Rossman Martin & Associates

Many of you know the late Kelly Rossman McKinney and I were business partners for nearly 14 years. In spring 1990, we met at a party hosted by one of my reporter colleagues in The Detroit News Lansing Bureau. Kelly and I clicked immediately. Soon she was describing her plans for growing her fledgling communications firm and inviting me along for the journey. I was super-flattered – who wouldn’t be. It took another year for me to act on the offer, but in spring 1991 I told The News I was leaving, and Kelly and I announced the formation of Rossman Martin & Associates.

We had a great run in many ways. Leaving that company was the most difficult experience of my life so far, short of the passing of my parents and my mother-in-law. I really did love Kelly like a sister, and like so many of you I cried when I learned of her passing a few weeks ago. She and I texted and chatted by phone and at events quite a bit over the past four or five years. I was proud to serve on the finance committee for her 2018 state Senate campaign. She was a remarkable person and an extraordinarily talented communications professional.

On the same day in 1996, she and I received separate phone calls from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in New York informing us we had won not one, but two Silver Anvils for 1995 campaigns we had led. PR professionals know just how hard it is to win one Silver Anvil in an entire career. Our small Lansing PR firm (we maybe had six employees and most certainly more mice in the building than people) won two in the same year. A few years ago, she and I revisited that day when we stopped to chat at the Detroit Regional Chamber Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. It was a glorious career highlight for both of us, I know.

The Opening of Greektown Casino

Literally dozens of people – including Kelly and I – worked tirelessly for years starting in 1991 to change state law to legalize class three gaming and the three Detroit casinos. We worked on the campaign to pass Proposal E on the statewide ballot in 1996 so Detroit could have casinos. Then we were retained by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and legendary Greektown developers Ted Gatzaros and Jim Papas to help them win one of the three casino licenses. Mission accomplished, though I can’t tell you how many foxholes we escaped and political dogfights we won along the way.

We also handled all the media relations and other strategic communications activities to support the opening of Greektown Casino. The grand opening of a major casino is a spectacular and glamorous event. The night Greektown Casino opened was all-hands-on-deck for our Rossman Martin staff, and we delivered an impressive showing of overwhelmingly positive media coverage.

Yes, there is a downside to casino gaming. No sugar coating it. But for the City of Detroit, the three casinos have been extraordinary successes for jobs, tax revenues, and related economic development activities.

 Opening of Martin Waymire and Winning Three Silver Anvils

David Waymire and I have been close friends for more than three decades. For the first 25 years or so, we were also fierce competitors. First, we competed for news stories when I was with The Detroit News and he was one of the stellar reporters in the formidable Booth News Lansing Bureau. Then we were competitors when David left Booth to join Tom Shields at Marketing Resource Group (MRG). David was put in charge of growing MRG’s strategic communications business, and indeed he did in direct competition with me and Kelly at Rossman Martin. (Tom Shields is another communications rock star to whom too few people around Lansing give proper respect or credit. Tom came first with MRG, then Kelly with her agency and Rossman Martin, in establishing PR firms in Michigan’s capital city that specialized in public policy and political advocacy communications. Tom’s politics were to the right of mine, but his skills were substantial.)

For the final five or so years David was at MRG and I was at Rossman Martin, the Martins and Waymires would get together on most weekends, at the holidays, or on joint family ski and party-weekend trips and discuss the joys and frustrations of working at our respective agencies. Eventually we decided we could do it better if we teamed up. While “better” is a subjective term and measurement, David and I would argue that we have done it better, at least as we define the term.

Without question, my nearly 18 years with David at Martin Waymire have been the most satisfying of my career. Believe me when I tell you that we ran/run a great enterprise, with high-functioning operating systems and processes, always-evolving business and marketing plans with clear goals and objectives, steady and consistent growth, and a keen eye for talent. David was the visionary, always looking for – or creating – the next business opportunity. I was the one who kept the trains running on time, with substantial essential support from our office manager Stacy Anderson, my wife Lynne, and a team of legal, accounting and human resources consultants.

Dave and I both brought in a ton of new business over the two decades. We both helped stock our team with remarkably talented professionals and good human beings. Our clients won a lot more than they lost, much to the benefit of the entire state. Evidence of our success is found in our three Martin Waymire Silver Anvils, literally hundreds of other regional, state and national PR excellence awards, and hundreds of client victories. Evidence is also found in the culture we’ve helped to create at Martin Waymire, where we insist on work-life balance, teamwork, excellence, continuing to learn and grow, and a commitment to clients who are working to make their states and communities better places.

Also believe me when I tell you that the new leadership and ownership team at Martin Waymire is going to do it even better than we did.

Medicaid Expansion

One of the great public policy achievements of the past decade in Michigan was the Legislature’s approval of the “Obamacare” Medicaid expansion in late summer 2013. Martin Waymire was retained by the Michigan Health & Hospital Association (MHA) and Michigan Association of Health Plans (MAHP) to plan and help execute communications strategies and tactics to win enough votes for passage. Despite stern opposition from the Republican Party, a strong majority of Democratic lawmakers and enough Republicans to get the job done joined with GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to support passage. The result: today nearly 1 million low-income working men and women in Michigan have quality health insurance. Without question, Medicaid expansion has saved Michigan lives.

Ending Partisan Gerrymandering in Michigan

Martin Waymire was the lead strategic communications firm to work on the campaign to pass Proposal 2 on the 2018 statewide ballot to end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. No longer will Michigan politicians oversee drawing their own congressional and legislative district lines. Now the power to draw new district lines every 10 years falls to an independent commission of Michigan citizens. The commission’s first stab at drawing political district lines under the new law is underway right now. The new district maps must be in place in time for the 2022 statewide elections. Over time, we believe the passage of Proposal 2 will result in political district lines in Michigan that more fairly represent the state’s population and prevent the political party in the majority from rigging districts for its own partisan gains. The ballot campaign won a Silver Anvil.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (F-RIB) at MSU

In the mid-2000s, a Martin Waymire team led by David Waymire was retained by Michigan State University (MSU) to help manage public-facing communications to support the university’s bid to bring the $730 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (F-RIB) to campus. After a lengthy campaign and overwhelming support from Michigan employers, a bipartisan group of political leaders and others across the world, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science announced MSU’s selection in December 2008. Without question, the F-RIB positions MSU as one of the leading nuclear science research centers on the planet.

I Vaccinate Campaign

Martin Waymire is proud of its work on the statewide I Vaccinate campaign to boost childhood immunization rates in Michigan. A public-private partnership between the Franny Strong Foundation and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, I Vaccinate is helping to save lives by giving parents science-based information about children’s vaccines. The campaign is supported by nearly every major and substantive public health and medical association and organization in Michigan. The campaign has won a Silver Anvil and placed second another year.

Miscellaneous

Here are some additional career highlights (I figured listing them here would help the person who is tasked with writing my obituary, which I’m hoping is still many, many years in the future):

  • Being named 2002 PACEMaker of the Year by the Central Michigan Public Relations Society of America
  • Winning various UPI, Associated Press, and Detroit Press Club awards for writing and reporting throughout the 1980s and 1990
  • Earning my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR)
  • Being named an Outstanding Alumni in 2020 of the MSU College of Communications Arts and Sciences

And in the End …

If you read this far you really like me, you are bored, you’ve had a lot of coffee (or alcohol), or you were looking for your name. Frankly, I could name dozens more people and organizations that have contributed to my successes in journalism and public relations. To those I missed, thank you. I am grateful beyond words.

What’s next for me? I’m still very healthy (knock on wood). I intend to return to teaching – more about that will be announced soon. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, I taught various undergraduate and graduate journalism writing and reporting courses at MSU and loved it. I intend to spend more time playing “live” music and improving my skills on the guitar. I love to play, have become pretty good, and hope to get a lot better. I intend to get back into good physical shape.

Lynne and I want to travel and spend more time at our Boyne Mountain home and with our growing family. Our first grandchild was born during the pandemic to our middle daughter and her husband, and more grandkids appear likely. Our oldest daughter will be getting married next fall, and our youngest daughter will soon finish at MSU.

I also will continue to consult with a limited number of Martin Waymire clients who want me to continue engaging on their behalf. I’ve promised the new owners and leadership team here that I will not be the dreaded pigeon manager, that guy who used to own the place, has retired, but swoops back in unannounced to poop on everyone and everything, and then fly away.

I sure had me a real good time.