By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In a July Tampa Tribune article, Crane defended himself by pointing out his mailers include several disclaimers Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth drafted personally. "There is a huge need for our service," Crane told the Tribune. "I don't understand why some people get confused. I don't know what other precautions we could take."
Jim Rose, a state investigator for the Florida AG's Office, said 4,866 residents have filed complaints against State Recording Service in the past 10 months. Rose has interviewed more than 1,000 of them, and he said not one realized Crane's solicitation was a private advertisement. He and Furlow also said they were puzzled when a series of glowing stories about S.R.S. began appearing in Florida newspapers about five months ago. "We've been wondering where those are coming from," Furlow said.
I had a good guess. Crane said he started hiring Valley reporters to write about his company in April or May. He told me his office faxes about 5,000 copies of several different articles every week to papers in Florida and Texas. It's a shotgun approach, just like direct mail. And it works. Originally, Crane said, he fired this PR salvo as a counterattack against bad press, but, to his pleasant surprise, the articles also generated a fair amount of business, and he's kept the program going, even though the media furor died down in Florida and Texas late this summer. "I've experienced bad press, and I've recently realized the power of good press," he said.
Furlow said the first puff piece about S.R.S. crossed her desk in June, attached to a complaint from a St. Petersburg man who sent Crane a check after reading the article in a shopping newspaper. "They all appear under headlines like 'Floridians File to Save Their Homes,'" Furlow said. "Who's writing them?"
Crane told me he's used several reporters Jo Ann rounded up with cold calls, after picking their names at random from the staff boxes and bylines of local newspapers. But he didn't say which newspapers, or which reporters. Furlow said most of the Florida articles have appeared in small-town and community newspapers--publications with low editorial standards that rely heavily on free-of-charge filler. She said none of the articles has included a byline.
It's practically impossible to pinpoint how many pro-S.R.S. articles have appeared in print, but Crane told me he's getting so many "hits," he just hired a press-clipping service for $300 a month to keep track of them all. "We're getting about 12 stories a week in Texas alone," he bragged.
They must all be in smalltime papers. A search of the Nexis database, which includes all major daily papers in the U.S., turned up 47 negative articles about S.R.S. in Florida and Texas--mostly based around court actions and consumer advisories issued by the AGs--but no happy-happy stories.
A search of national wire services, however, was more fruitful.
On September 10, two songs of praise for S.R.S. were picked up by the Business Wire, an on-line subscription service that distributes news bulletins and press releases to papers across the country. The first story, titled "Homestead Makes Sure Island Paradise Stays All in the Family," was datelined "Long Key, Fla." It told of a 63-year-old retired nurse who recently purchased a magnificent, historic home on a tropical island just off the coast of Florida. "To keep the house in the family for future generations," the article reports, "she recently turned to State Recording Service to prevent the house from being seized in times of financial hardship."
The second article, "Change in Texas Law Won't Guarantee Protection for Homeowners," describes how a new state law makes designation of homestead automatic when homeowners file for a routine property-tax exemption. "But such protection isn't guaranteed," the article warns. "In fact, it could easily be lost." Evidently, there's up to a 10-month delay in processing the paperwork. "To get instant protection," the piece informs readers, "Texas homeowners still can turn to the company that has been providing assistance to Texans who want homestead protection for the last several years--State Recording Service." Both articles contain a 1-800 number for S.R.S.
On September 11, the day after Business Wire posted the Texas article, the Zapata County News in Zapata, Texas, published it word for word. As usual, the article had no byline. However, at the bottom of the Business Wire post, there was a block of State Recording Service contact info that included the line "By: Matt Burgard, (reporter)."
Burgard is the police and fire beat reporter for the Scottsdale Tribune. He said he started working for Crane about four months ago after a woman called him out of the blue. Burgard said he's written about 30 articles for Crane. He said he was unaware of Crane's legal problems, and never knew when or if his articles were published. The purpose of Burgard's work, as he understood it, was "to tell the stories of customers they helped. To show the good the company does." Burgard said he originally took the job because "I had a wedding coming up, and needed extra money to pay for it." He said the firm paid him about $50 per article. He said his sources for the article were customers S.R.S. put him in touch with.