PR firm cancels contract with Sarasota County Schools
The firm is citing allegations that it used pseudonyms to post comments on a local newspaper's website as reasons it's canceling the contract.
| 12:03 p.m. October 5, 2017
Four days after entering into a two-year contract with Sarasota County Schools, Three Six Oh PR canceled its agreement to provide strategic communications services for the district.
The decision comes after accusations that Candice McElyea, president and owner of Three Six Oh PR, posted comments on a local newspaper’s website on articles about Superintendent Todd Bowden, the district and the firm’s other clients.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an article less than an hour after McElyea formally terminated her contract with the district. In the article, the paper outlines the instances that several accounts under different names were posting from McElyea's IP address (the unique identifier for her computer network) and posted comments on articles about her clients.
“I can tell you I am not doing that,” McElyea was quoted as saying. According to the article, she added that her firm does hire freelancers and some employees act as "brand ambassadors," but commenting positively on news articles is not in any of their job descriptions. At that point, the paper reported that McElyea said she needed to gather "her troops" and consult with her legal counsel.
The newspaper said comments from the same IP address were found on stories about the school district hiring Three Six Oh PR and an investigation into sexual harassment allegations about Bowden, as well as other articles about the firm's other clients. Comments came from accounts under names like "Jayson Miller," "Jessica L" and "Karen B." The Herald-Tribune was unable to verify the identities of any of the commenters.
“We are looking into the allegations made against our firm, and all current and former employees who have had access to our confidential information,” McElyea said in a release about the allegations. “We wonder why we are specifically being targeted and would hope the news article also includes research into all repeat online commenters.”
In an interview with the Observer, McElyea said she was just made aware of the allegations Wednesday, and she is working with her IT team and independent contractors to understand the situation further.
She formally terminated the contract Thursday morning, effective immediately, after a conversation with Bowden the day before. Bowden received a call from the Herald-Tribune, then spoke with McElyea himself.
"After I came to the conclusion that Three Six Oh had in fact been posting on the Herald-Tribune website using a number of aliases, I requested that they resign as the district's PR firm," he told the Observer. "This district has very high standards for this employees and that includes our contractors working on our behalf. And when those standards are not met there's going to be accountability.
"As a public entity I just don't believe that those are the types of PR tools that we should be employing."
When asked what the district plans to do for their communication needs moving forward, Bowden said there needs to be some time for things to settle.
"I remain convinced that we can receive services from a private firm, but I think 24 hours ago I had a two-year contract with a firm," he said. "But now is not the best time to make those decisions."
District Communications Manager Scott Ferguson said the proposal Three Six Oh submitted to the district, as well as an email about the firm accepting a lower rate, was serving as the contract until a more standard document could be drawn up. There was no language in the existing documents, including the Request For Proposals, that prohibits Three Six Oh from terminating the agreement.
Bowden said typically, terminating a contract requires notice, but he asked the Three Six Oh do so immediately, with no penalties to either party.
The firm was selected from two applicants, the other being strategic communications firm Magnify Good. Magnify Good asked for $15,000 a month, while Three Six Oh asked for $9,000.