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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.