Trylon Communications  - January 2005

Blurring The Line

The recent termination of a news commentator who allegedly “crossed the line” between journalism and promotion is one of several recent events that have placed a spotlight on questionable public relations practices and consumer trust in the media and PR industry. Armstrong Williams, a news commentator whose articles run in prominent newspapers, was paid by the Bush administration to promote the “no child left behind” policy.

Ketchum Public Relations paid Williams' advertising firm $240,000 on behalf of the Department of Education to produce ads promoting No Child Left Behind that aired during his television and radio shows. In addition, Williams was required to regularly comment on the law during his broadcasts.

As experts in the media industry, PR firms are expected to be able to draw the line between a spokesperson and a newsperson. Blurring the line between the two only causes more confusion for the public – and engenders further distrust of the media and PR industries.

We can all learn from Ketchum’s experience that not only are the clients and endorsers of this type of promotion excoriated, but that the companies that arrange the promotion can be held up to scrutiny as well. As PR professionals, it is up to us to protect the reputation of our clients and our industry by following the rules. Ketchum has begun an internal review into all government contracts as a result of this controversy.

For his part, Williams said he deeply regrets his actions. "It's important that I have a credible voice and that I'm not perceived as being paid for what I say," he said. "This is my responsibility. I blame no one, I get the message, and I will be better," he stated, according to a report from USA Today.

Another example of consumer confusion and frustration was the controversy surrounding the CBS report on President Bush and his National Guard service. As Trylon president Lloyd Trufelman opined in this week’s PR Week, a simple case of poor journalism sent a highly regarded news organization into a tailspin. "This sends a message that they should've learned in school - check your facts," he said.

CBS handled the controversy well, immediately forming a panel to investigate the situation and ultimately firing four executives for their part in the scandal. However, the damage to consumer confidence was done. Consumers will be more wary when evaluating news reports, questioning facts and agendas.

To illustrate another example of the media credibility problem, a group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed 22 Freedom of Information Act requests to government agencies concerning questionable practices by Ketchum and Fleischman-Hillard regarding video news releases that were produced and distributed by them on behalf of administration organizations. The group claims that both firms have contracted with the government to produce “news stories”, resulting in similar controversies and in violation of the Publicity and Propaganda clause.

At least twice in the past year, Congress' Government Accountability Office has chastised federal agencies for disseminating information to the public disguised as news reports without disclosing that the information was produced by the government, going so far as to label such reports as “covert propaganda.”

There are many lessons to be learned here. Many companies try to disguise blatant propaganda as “news” and feed it to the media. Instead of trying to brand a story pitch as news, companies would be better served by being honest and forthright in their pitch – offering the story as interesting content as opposed to breaking news.

Also, using a spokesperson can be a useful strategy, but blurring the line between journalist and promoter is certainly not doing your client – or you – any good at all.

Finally, when caught in controversy, you must immediately take an appropriate position and present your case clearly. Obfuscation and delayed accountability only serve to further destroy your reputation.