When Tim Miller, a longtime Republican political agent, moved to the Bay Area last year to set up a public relations store, he brought with him a business network more typical of Washington than Silicon Valley. He was familiar with the opposition investigation: the search for damaging information about a political enemy. He had ties to online media provocateurs. And above all, he understood the value of secrecy.
Miller had come at the right time with his company, Definers Public Affairs. With customers and lawmakers questioning the recognized good intentions and power of the biggest tech companies, Facebook and others were on the defensive. He quickly found plenty of businesses, from startups like Lyft, Lime and Juul to giants like Facebook and Qualcomm, the influential chip company that was in a nasty legal fight with Apple over royalties, according to five people with direct knowledge of Miller’s work who rejected. to be appointed due to confidentiality agreements.
While working for Qualcomm, the Definitors promoted the idea that Apple CEO Timothy Cook was a viable presidential candidate in 2020, according to a former employee of the Definitors and Digital Records. Presumably, it was an attempt to cool down the cordial relations Cook had cultivated with the Trump administration. The Definitors’ campaign marked an escalation in the Silicon Valley approach that had already been neglected in public relations.
“This kind of dirty public relations? It’s always been there, but it’s definitely on the rise,” said Jonathan Hirshon, who was a public relations representative for technology companies for three decades, including Apple and Sony. “The idealism is still there, but the truth is that big companies have become much more authoritarian in their approach to the media.”
Facebook fired the Definitors last week after The New York Times detailed the work that Miller’s firm had done on behalf of the social media company. Definers encouraged reporters to write about financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and liberal financier George Soros, claiming he relied on anti-Semitic tropes. The finishers’ strategy played with the pressure points of a target. Most of what the Definers produced for Qualcomm had nothing to do with their problem with Apple, which was a complex legal fight over the rights that Apple should pay for the Qualcomm chips it was using in iPhones.
Definers’ employees distributed investigations against Apple to reporters and did not say who was paying for it. Definers distributed a 13-page note titled “Apple Bowing to Chinese Cyber Regulators” that detailed how Apple’s activity in China contradicted its public stance on privacy elsewhere. It also posted dozens of negative articles about Apple on conservative news sites, according to a person familiar with the work and the emails reviewed by The New York Times. Qualcomm officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Matt Rhoades, CEO of Definers, said in a statement that the firm’s work “is absolutely no different than what public affairs firms do every day for their clients in every industry and issue across the country. We are. proud of the work we do for our clients. ”Juul, who has been accused of marketing his e-cigarettes to children, is working with Definitors to improve their public image and communicate with reporters. It is unclear what the work is beyond of that.
Lyft, the trucking company, used Definers to help navigate regulatory challenges at state residences across the country, including selecting Lyft drivers to launch into the media for interviews, according to a person familiar with the job. And the motorcycle company Lime hired Definers in August because it wanted an outside contractor to take a more aggressive stance against its rivals, according to a person familiar with that job. Lyft and Lime have finished their work with Definers.
Some details of the Definers’ relationships with tech firms, including Lyft and Lime, have previously been reported by other news organizations. Definers also applied their services for Washington. He helped establish Power the Future, a pro-oil trade group, while also working for the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA terminated its contract with the Definitors last year after it was revealed that an attorney for the Definitors was investigating agency employees who were critical of the Trump administration.
To promote clients and attack their clients’ enemies, Definitors regularly used the NTK Network, a news aggregator with a conservative slant and 122,000 followers on Facebook. Definers and its sister firm, the political opposition group America Rising, share part of the staff and a floor of an office building in Arlington, Virginia, with NTK. Joe Pounder, a veteran of the Republican presidential campaigns who describes himself as “a master of opposition research” in his biographies, is listed as co-founder of Definers and America Rising and editor-in-chief of NTK.
Pounder and two colleagues distanced NTK from the Definitors after The Times report last week. “We don’t work and we don’t work with Facebook. We share offices with a company that does, “they wrote in a blog post. But Miller promoted how the Definers used NTK in a proposal sent to a potential Definers client last year, in a section called” Digital Platform Echo Chamber. ” . “Definers runs NTK Network, a news aggregation platform for Washington DC influencers. “Through NTK we can directly republish favorable news from other outlets and work with like-minded individuals to help create an echo chamber effect,” he wrote in a copy of the proposal reviewed by The Times.
This year, NTK has published at least 57 articles criticizing Apple and Cook. Some of the posts forced Apple to resolve issues at the heart of the legal dispute between Apple and Qualcomm and reiterated Qualcomm’s complaints. Apple had also started to stop using Qualcomm chips. Other stories were even more direct, such as an August one about Qualcomm technology that concluded: “For Apple, the choice will be clear: please Qualcomm or offer a slower and inferior product to consumers.”
Pounder said in a statement Tuesday that NTK is regularly released by public relations people and the media. “What NTK writes and publishes is what NTK chooses to write and publish,” he added. Definitors also used other means to spread their work. In July 2017, Miller wrote an article that accused Cook of lying to President Donald Trump about building Apple factories in the United States, according to an email reviewed by The Times. According to the email, he sent the article to the right-wing provocateur, Charles C Johnson, who posted it on his GotNews website without a phrase or other information that it came from Miller, Definers, or Qualcomm.