When MetLife announced in January plans to split away from its Charlotte-based U.S. retail operations, the Observer asked the state what that would mean for the local hub.
In response, the N.C. Commerce Department said it valued “the strong relationship we’ve built with MetLife,” which was awarded more than $87 million in state incentives in 2013 to open hubs in Charlotte and Cary. Commerce also told the Observer it looked forward to continuing to build on its relationship with the New York-based insurer.
Turns out it was MetLife who prepared the state’s “talking points” at the request of Gov. Pat McCrory, according to emails obtained by the Observer.
McCrory never used the points, a McCrory spokesman told the Observer last week. But in the statement it sent the Observer, Commerce used some of MetLife’s talking points almost verbatim.
From the talking points MetLife provided the state: “We value the strong relationship we’ve built with MetLife and look forward to continuing to build on it – both with the Global Technology division in Cary and the new company in Charlotte.”
What the Commerce Department told the Observer: “NC Commerce values the strong relationship we’ve built with MetLife and looks forward to continuing to build on it with both the Global Technology division in Cary and the new company in Charlotte.”
The emails, obtained in a public records request, shed light on what some public relations officials say is a common practice in North Carolina and elsewhere. Industry officials say it’s not unusual for companies to supply government officials with background information when, for example, a company is relocating to a state or city.
But communications professors interviewed by the Observer say the documents raise questions about the relationship between a corporation and a state that’s supposed to be holding it accountable for taxpayer-funded incentives.
“It’s a little bit shocking that the government would adopt these first-person statements verbatim,” said Joseph Cabosky, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism.
Asked about the practice, Commerce Department spokeswoman Kim Genardo told the Observer it’s common for corporations receiving state incentives to send the department and the governor’s office “background briefs, including current status, what is changing moving forward and any key messages.”
She said any concerns that using the MetLife talking points compromises the state’s ability to hold the company accountable are “ridiculous” and “hypothetical.” She said it’s “common sense” for the state to also ask for updates from companies receiving incentives when those businesses are involved in acquisitions or mergers.
With the exception of the two sentences, it appears the vast majority of the MetLife talking points were never used with the media.
“MetLife is proud of the jobs we have created in North Carolina and furnished a summary of facts to help officials understand and communicate about our footprint in the state,” the insurer said in a statement to the Observer.
MetLife supplied the McCrory administration with the points Jan. 12, the day the insurer announced plans to separate much of its U.S. retail business, emails show. In 2013, MetLife agreed to base that business in Charlotte, as well as create the technology hub in Cary, in exchange for the North Carolina incentives.
The aim of the talking points, according to the emails, was to provide suggested answers to potential media questions about the planned separation.
“At the Governor’s request, we have prepared the attached background memo and talking points for his use,” Gregory Redmond, MetLife’s head of state government relations, wrote in an email to McCrory aide Jimmy Broughton.
A separate email that day from MetLife spokesman Al Killeffer to McCrory press secretary Graham Wilson notes the MetLife materials included a “potential statement” for McCrory to use in the first person.
“MetLife has let me know that, currently, there are no changes to any positions,” reads a suggested response for McCrory to use.
Dean Kruckeberg, a UNC Charlotte communications professor who has written on public relations ethics, said the MetLife emails concern him – “not only as a public relations scholar-educator and ethicist, but even more so as a citizen who has a vital interest in transparency in government and who is concerned about any inordinate hidden influences by special interests.”
He added: “Evidence that government officials proactively requested media ‘talking points’ from a special interest, even to the extent that a ‘potential statement’ was proffered, would suggest that transparency is being compromised. I would judge government officials to be culpable.”
Under the terms of its 2013 grant, MetLife’s goal was to create 2,622 jobs across Charlotte and Cary by the end of 2015 and retain a minimum of 2,098 new jobs from 2016 through 2025 to avoid default. According to the company, it now employs more than 2,600 across its Charlotte and Cary hubs.
Last month, the company announced a rebranding of the Charlotte-based business as Brighthouse Financial, and said the move has no impact on its Charlotte employee count. In March, the insurer said it had about 1,500 workers in the U.S. retail business’ headquarters in Ballantyne.
Genardo, the Commerce spokeswoman, said the type of background information the insurer supplied the state is not used to ensure compliance with its incentive requirements. Commerce and the Revenue Department conduct annual audits for those purposes, she said.