An executive at the company that provides red-light cameras in Spokane has been suspended after a newspaper in Western Washington discovered he misrepresented himself as a local resident on its website and made comments to promote business in the area, a company spokesman said Friday.
Bill Kroske, the vice president of business development at American Traffic Solutions Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz., also posted comments on The Spokesman-Review’s website. The Herald, of Everett, reported that it tracked posts made by Kroske to the company in Arizona, and that he had signed up for the Herald’s website using his real name and work email.
A reporter covering a popular debate over the “Photo Red” program noticed that a person with the screen name “W Howard” had been commenting frequently, and discovered the account was linked to a company that appeared to be using the comments to promote its business, Herald editor Neal Pattison said. The user never identified himself as an employee of American Traffic Solutions.
Company spokesman Charles Territo called Kroske someone who cares very passionately about the industry and was trying to counter misinformation about their product.
“Unfortunately, he did it the wrong way,” Territo said. “We believe that you should be authentic and honest when engaging.”
In 2010, from January through July, Kroske posted nine comments on The Spokesman-Review’s website under the name Obie1, which is registered to his email at American Traffic Solutions.
In his posts, all of which touched on red-light cameras, he wrote as if he lived in Spokane. He refers to critics as the “camera paranoia group” and suggests they start a campaign to get rid of the cameras “by no one running red lights so no money for the city.”
“If you are successful you can be smug…and the city will say Bravo,” according to the comment, posted Jan. 27, 2010. He posted the same comment on another story the next day.
After several people posted comments criticizing the cameras, Kroske said their response “is just why we need the cameras.”
“It is that same lack of common sense and emotional control that is found in aggressive and dangerous driving,” Kroske wrote.
In a comment that same week regarding a bill in the Legislature that would cap red-light tickets, Kroske calls for “safe drivers” to unite and “Let the legislature know you are the ones they should be looking out for.”After an editorial in January 2010 questioned the cameras’ effectiveness after statistics showed crashes had increased at those intersections, Kroske implied that the increase may be a citywide trend because of “one of our worst winters in many years.”
“Accidents always go up in slippery weather,” Kroske wrote, adding that the numbers “certainly aren’t consistent with reduction of accident numbers reported by the cities in Western WA.”
In his last comment, on a July blog post about Tim Eyman sponsoring a ballot measure to curtail the use of red-light cameras in Mukilteo, Wash., Kroske called the initiative Eyman’s “latest attempt is to stir people up and show he can win something on at least a small level.”
“I hope the safe drivers in Mukilteo will unite and support their police department,” Kroske wrote. “However, I would recommend we have an initiative here too: one banning Eyman from ever moving to Spokane!”
This has been a learning experience for American Traffic Solutions, Territo said.
“Employees need to understand that as companies we are held to a higher standard and that posts, tweets, and blogs not only reflect on the individual but also the company that they work for,” he said.
Pattison said he was not surprised by the misuse of the Herald’s comments systems. It was almost common knowledge that the companies marketing red-light cameras were active in drumming up grass-roots support, Pattison said, but the newspaper staff was surprised Kroske registered using his company email.
Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agreed that grass-roots marketing has become common online – from fans promoting music groups to companies asking people to talk about their products.
Jones said the latest incident represented a trickier ethical question because of the poster’s vested interest. He said it was a big step beyond the kid who promotes a band’s new album on his Facebook page in exchange for a free T-shirt.
“You don’t have to do this deceptively,” Jones said. “My guess is he presumed if he did that, he wouldn’t have been published.”
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