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United’s Public Policy Event Is Important; Future Years’ Scheduling To Be Improved

One of the more interesting subjects that has arisen as communications technology has evolved is the issue of how policy gets discussed and who sets the agenda.

On broad public issues we have seen this most recently with the immigration bill. It was obvious from the beginning that it was the plethora of new media, such as multiple cable channels and radio talk shows, that had been driving opposition to the bill. We even published a piece here at the Pundit that named a cable host by name: Pundit’s Mailbag — AgJOBS vs. Lou Dobbs.

Yet by the time Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, pulled the immigration compromise from the floor, the “experts” felt that the opposition to the bill had also peaked. Yet, in fact, during the time the bill was off the floor, opposition mushroomed, and this was principally due to the Internet. Chat rooms, bloggers, e-mail lists — you name it — were interested in the issue and kept it a focus of attention.

In journalism, the agenda has typically been set by those with a “bully pulpit,” such as the President of the United States or by a few lead newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that have the financial resources to maintain teams of investigative journalists. What was promoted by these people and institutions was soon the subject of newscasts and local headlines all around the country.

It is worth remembering that the “grand compromise” between the luminaries of the Senate was supposed to quickly pass through the Senate within days, before opposition would have a chance to build. The demise of that plan, in the face of a public outcry welling up from the blogosphere, symbolized a new reality. That the old days of secret deals in smoked-filled rooms, really are, if not dead, very difficult to pull off anymore.

Within our own industry we’ve seen the same phenomenon. We ran a piece entitled Imagination Farms/Disney Garden Score Big Points With PBH And Pixar, which was a sort of celebratory article pointing out that Imagination Farms had done some deals that would be big wins for Imagination Farms. The deals were with, separately, the Produce for Better Health Foundation and Disney Studios/Pixar.

We were focused completely on the angle of this being good for Imagination Farms. However, our readership was quickly focused on how the deal with PBH might affect them and PBH. We started hearing from readers as in Pundit’s Mailbag — PBH/Imagination Farms Alliance Questioned, and the powers that be at PBH started hearing from its own board members. Next thing you know the “deal” between Imagination Farms and PBH was no longer the same “deal”.

What both the immigration issue on the national policy side and the Imagination Farms/PBH “alliance” on the produce industry side illustrate is that the day when secret deals could be expected to be kept shrouded is now past and that the elites thus have lost a certain power that comes from controlling information.

We mention all this because it changes the way business is done. Top players now recognize that they need to preemptively influence those who are in position to influence their constituencies.

As a result, here at the Pundit we receive a lot of calls and e-mails. Some of this is people suggesting stories for us to write about. Another big chunk is people seriously looking to discuss industry issues. A big portion, however, is people calling neither to feed us stories nor because they really want to discuss any industry issues but, rather, to try to defuse future problems by discussing issues with us and, in doing so, giving us additional perspective.

Often these callers, visitors and e-mailers hope we won’t write about something at all or, if we do, they hope that the event in question will be viewed within a particular context.

Our recent piece urging people to attend United’s Washington, D.C. event, entitled Washington Public Policy Conference — Action Plan For Government Relations, brought lots of publicity to the conference. United was so pleased with the piece, the association linked to it in the United weekly newsletter.

It is a great program and we do urge people to attend it if they can.

There is something about this year’s program, however, that we didn’t write about and we were called on it by quite a few readers. We heard from board members, former board members, former staff, current staff at a Congressional office and several longtime United members. This note from a long-time United member was fairly representative:

Your editorial about United’s Washington Conference motivated me to register, but when I looked at the calendar, I realized that the date of the conference conflicts with the Jewish Holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

This is both insulting and foolish. Insulting because as a small business I have struggled for over 30 years to pay my United dues. I think it is reasonable that United would schedule its major events to allow Jewish members to participate.

It is foolish because a decent number of Congressional staff and Congress people are also Jewish and probably won’t be in Congress to meet with the United members.

This is very bad management and I hope you will call them on it.

Tom Stenzel, President of United Fresh, had called the Pundit over this issue more than a month ago. The first words out of Tom’s mouth were: “We made a terrible mistake and scheduled the Washington Public Policy Congress to conflict with Rosh Hashanah. Obviously it was unintentional, and we have already taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Knowing that the Pundit is Jewish, Tom asked for what help or advice we could provide.

We appreciated the call and tried our best to be helpful, sending along a Jewish calendar for future years and identifying the top Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Washington, plus one hosting a community dinner so that United Fresh could prepare a “fact sheet” for anyone who came to the event and was looking for a place to go for services or to participate in other aspects of Jewish communal life.

Although we did all this, we knew this was more a matter of form than helpful. Nobody who is observant is going to be attending the United conference as the day is spent almost completely in synagogue. The liturgy is substantially expanded for the day and the highlight is the sounding of a ram’s horn, called a shofar, which is blown as one would a trumpet.

Even many Jewish people who barely know the inside of a synagogue may attend twice a year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even those who do not attend synagogue identify the holiday as an important family event and are unlikely to attend.

Rosh Hashanah is technically the Jewish New Year — the term translates as “head of the year” or “first of the year” — but the term is deceptive because it is among the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, and its celebration has little to do with late night drinking, wild parties or watching football games.

We didn’t write about all this because — contrary to the belief of some that our purpose here at the Pundit is to stir up controversy — we actually try to be extremely responsible about the subjects we raise. We look for opportunities to improve the industry.

Since Tom saw the problem and called both acknowledging the problem and pledging to avoid it in the future, we didn’t see any way that promoting the problem would improve the industry. So we focused on the positive, knowing that anyone affected directly by this issue would be given an appropriate response by United when they called or wrote United.

Yet, after hearing from people following our piece, it was clear that we have a broader role and a greater responsibility than we may have realized. First, as we followed up on the e-mails and phone calls, many wanted us to speak out precisely because they did not feel they could speak to United about the issue. They felt their businesses would be at risk if they got the reputation of being a troublemaker. Or they felt their employer would object to their making a fuss.

Second, many made the point that the issue was one that actually will affect all attendees — Jewish and non-Jewish. To put an extreme case on it, nobody will be getting to meet with Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut on that day; he is an Orthodox Jew. In general, although United doubtless has gotten many commitments and will still have a highly successful event, many of the offices will be short-staffed. This means both that Jewish staffers will not be available for meetings and the non-Jewish staff will be scrambling to cover the open vacancies.

Third, nobody doubts that it was a simple error, an error done without malice or intent of any kind. But it was such a basic error — the Pundit’s wife is a member of Junior League and they wouldn’t book a committee meeting for five people without consulting a community calendar — that it brings to the fore issues regarding management procedures that shouldn’t be brushed under the rug.

Rosh Hashanah is not an obscure holiday. The Pundit has on his wall the completely non-religious “At-A-Glance” wall calendar and it notes the holiday. A quick glance at several industry calendars, sent out by major firms in the trade, show that the holiday is on all of them. There was obviously a procedure missing in the setting of the date. Every event date has to be checked for conflicts — with other industry events, with holidays, etc.

Finally, although Tom was clearly 100% sincere in saying that this would not be allowed to happen again, Tom is mortal. One day he will leave United and his promises and commitments may not all be remembered by his successors. By putting things on the record, those promises and commitments are memorialized to be shown to some future United CEO to remind him or her of the obligations undertaken.

We take Tom at his word. It was a mistake. He and all the team at United regret it. It won’t happen again. That is good enough for us.

United does a lot of good for the industry. It serves no purpose to malign an organization because of a management slip-up, even on a very sensitive issue such as religion.

Tom joined United as its death was considered imminent by many. It is 10-plus years later, and United was strong enough to be there for the industry when it needed help during the food safety issues of last fall. That is a record built on management success, not a record built on management slip-ups.

Too much can be made of things sometimes. To paraphrase a lesson from another religion: Let he who has never made a mistake cast the first stone.

Besides, Rosh Hashanah is really about introspection. It is a time to review the mistakes of past years and develop a plan to make changes for a better future. Intrinsic in the holiday is the notion that mistakes will be made and that with repentance, prayer and good deeds, we can build a better future.

Rosh Hashanah has a produce edge to it as well. The common practice is to eat apples dipped in honey, which symbolizes our wish that the year ahead should be as sweet.

This year, many Jewish members won’t be able to attend United’s Washington Public Policy Conference. This makes it even more important that those in the industry who can make it should go and support the program.

The rest of us, wherever we may be, can dip an apple in honey and wish the attendees the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem, which roughly translates as “May you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of life) for a good year.”

For those able to attend, The Washington Public Policy Conference is going to be a great event; you can only gain by registering. You can do so here.

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