Status update from the bipartisan front

It would be a crying shame to discover that “the nation’s first bipartisan political action committee related to UFOs” went belly-up because it failed to adequately monetize public interest in this ET thing.

As UAP research bills advance in the House and the Senate without any provisions for sharing those results with taxpayers, I decided to complain to UFOPac, the new UFO Political Action Committee. If this startup was as good as advertised, I wanted to know why they were allowing the pols to get away with it.

You remember these guys, right? Big PR splash back in May – tepid coverage, mostly – trying to draw as much attention to the political novelty act as to their agenda. And their agenda looked pretty impressive. It called for the creation of a revolutionary new National Laboratory devoted exclusively to unlocking the UAP code. It would push for global collaboration, in which dozens of nations would bring terrestrial and space-based assets to bear on identifying, collecting and evaluating anomalous data. At the top of its priority list, however, was transparency and accountability – starting with open hearings under the Dome.

Recognizing the non-doctrinaire nature of UAPs as potential fuel for a “mass movement” of citizen democracy, UFOPac in May offered itself as “the nation’s first bipartisan political action committee related to UFOs.” Its trio of co-founders and ideological opposites certainly appeared to reinforce that idea. Entrepreneur Peter Ragone has been an advisor to Dem luminaries Al Gore, Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsome and Bill de Blasio. Conversely, Washington Times contributor Matt Mackowiak has served on the staffs of Republican senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Conrad Burns, and he now chairs the powerful Travis County GOP in Austin, Texas.

Their bonding agent: marketing entrepreneur Darius Fisher, owner/CEO of an Austin-based “digital reputation management” company called Status Labs. Touting SL’s self-proclaimed rep as “one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States,” the UFOPac press handout included a studio-applause list of the 11 (mostly) top-shelf publications that had written stories on Studio Labs.

According to the website, Fisher’s plan was to funnel grass-roots donations into building a full-time digital staff, hiring a full-time fundraiser, and bankrolling a lobbyist who knows all the right tricks of persuasion when it comes to policy and players. And UFOPac would sweeten the pie by spending the federal lobbying maximum of $5,000 on each target – assuming, of course, enough donors ponied up.

To that end, its website offered a donation-box menu giving truth-seekers the option of clicking on increments of $10, $25, $250 and — oddly — two separate and identical boxes for $1,000 contributions. Alongside yet another blank window for any old DIY amount you’d like to make. But that wasn’t the biggest mystery on display.

UFOPac had also dropped a petition for President Biden on change.org, demanding the White House empty the closets on UAP secrets “Before the June 25 Report to Congress.” The goal was modest: “At 1,500 signatures, this petition is more likely to get picked up by local news!” However: that undated appeal dead-ends at 1,111 signatures. So, nothing for local news to pick up. In fact, updates to UFOPac.org’s “news” tab appear to have dropped off a cliff in June, too.

Last week, I sent a query through UFOPac’s media portal to find out why. Hey, look, I get it, OK, I’m not totally psychotic – Life in Jonestown isn’t WaPo or NYT or Salon or Slate or take your pick. Since I quit my newspaper job in disgust last April, I don’t even have a respectable business card anymore, so I didn’t hold my breath for an operation this ambitious and consequential to reply right away. Still, it looked like these boys might need all the help they could get, and I’d be thrilled to do my puny little part.

A week later, the symphony of crickets throbs on.

Hm. Maybe Darius Fisher had a bit more on his plate than UFOs. I sniffed around, and it didn’t take long to discover the meaning of “digital reputation management.” Plus a shitload of articles Fisher didn’t include in UFOPac’s announcement five months ago.

First stop (obviously): Wikipedia. And holy cow, right off the bat, boom, major pants-on-fire ruh-rohs for UFOPac’s Status Labs mothership. Was this a joke? I visited the statuslabs.com site to double check. But not word one there taking credit for its success in forcing a major overhaul of Wikipedia policy. So here’s the Wikipedia version:

In 2010, two years before Fisher and partner Jordan French founded Status Labs, they put together an editing company, Wiki-PR, designed to make the Wikipedia profiles of paying clients, such as Priceline and Viacom, gleam like new dental implants. Within three years, however, the Wikimedia Foundation – the nonprofit board guaranteeing free access to the online encyclopedia – had banned Wiki-PR from posting anything on its website again. Ever. That’s because Wikipedia had to firehose off hundreds of entries suspected of being Wiki-PR “sock puppets,” or deceptive accounts. I.e., #fakenews. Reputation at stake, Wikipedia then changed its rules to bar all entries that fail to disclose their true or paid affiliations.

Status Labs, however, recovered quickly from the Wikipedia smackdown. In 2014, it was extending bribes to journos to slip Status Labs’ clients into mainstream platforms.

“We’re not looking for you to promote or shill for anything. Just include discussion of our clients in a natural, organic way.” Status Labs made the mistake of sending this message to CNBC freelancer Alan Wastler. “What we’re paying,” the note went on, “varies wildly depending on quality of the secured hit.” Wastler wound up writing an expose for CNBC. “We’ve paid up to a dollar per word for great placement. What payment structure would you be comfortable with?”

Wastler’s revenge included quotes from the chair of the Public Relations Society’s ethics and professional standards committee: “This pitch would violate three, if not four, of the provisions in our code of ethics … In fact, this is probably the clearest case I’ve seen of someone in violation.”

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal introduced readers to Status Labs this way: “Prominent figures from Jacob Gottlieb to Betsy DeVos got help from a reputation management firm that can bury image-sensitive Google results by placing flattering content on websites that masquerade as news outlets.” The article was titled “How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online.”

Other pratfalls, including the acrimonious dissolution of the Fisher-French partnership, were covered by the likes of the Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly, and the Austin Business Journal (none of which were referenced in the UFOPac press release). Fortunately, there will never be a shortage of high-rolling screwups to keep image-spinners employed. One of Status Labs’ early clients, the since-bankrupt Theranos miracle-cure empire, is in the spotlight this week. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is on trial in California for criminal fraud. Wonder if she’ll ask Status Labs for a refund.

Anyhow, unless otherwise informed, LiJ is forced to assume UFOPac has joined Theranos in the ditch, alongside the crumpled beer cans, Burger King straws, mosquito larvae, and spent Durex wrappers. But hope clings eternal. At UFOPac’s online store, they’re still apparently selling coronavirus masks ($10) and T-shirts ($25) featuring the company’s modest flying saucer logo situated above an exhortation that offends absolutely no one: “I want to know!”

Come on, UFOPac — at least tell us you’re in a safe place and haven’t been pillow-smothered by the CIA.