The public relations industry and the media have always enjoyed a curious relationship. Those in the public relations industry will tell you that the media can’t do its job without PR flacks. Media folk, meanwhile, will suggest that public relations departments are little more than mouthpieces for people who would still speak to the media if the public relations industry never existed. And both viewpoints are correct–to a point.
As technology has expanded our access to both the media and the public relations industry, we’ve seen a shift in how the two beasts interact in the wild. The rise of 24-hour cable news and radio stations, the internet (and all that’s come in its wake), and a consumer more in tune with the news cycle has created a new world order. Unfortunately, as we progress, the lines are still blurry between what constitutes promotion and what constitutes unbiased news reporting.
More evidence of this blurring emerged recently when Armstrong Williams, billed as a conservative commentator, reportedly accepted $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on his syndicated television show. Public relations firm Ketchum, a unit of Omnicom Group, brokered the deal. The incident raised a number of questions, including whether it’s appropriate for the government to use tax dollars to promote policy in the media, whether Williams should have disclosed the relationship to his audience, and whether Ketchum crossed the line.
The backlash towards Williams indicated that people were not happy about the government shelling out almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars to promote policy. Democrats and Republicans expressed unhappiness about the deal, and the White House suggested that it’s none too pleased, either. More importantly, the public backlash towards the Williams-Ketchum deal revealed that the general public has a fear of a certain insidious form of public relations. If the government and our politicians are constantly spinning us, can we believe them? And if public relations firms act as the government’s lackey, can we trust them?
Williams, for his part, was quick to admit that he acted improperly in not disclosing the paid relationship. His willingness to apologize was tempered by a curious admission of naivete as to how public relations, the media, and Washington all work. After all, this was a man who wrote a syndicated newspaper column and was often called on by the media to offer a conservative view of issues and events. Williams’ apology fell on deaf ears, and his childlike admission of naivete should have been taken with a rather large grain of salt. As a columnist and pundit with strong ties to one political party, Williams was a shill for years, no different than any of the people who have hosted or appeared on the now-defunct CNN show Crossfire.
As for Ketchum, this is not the first time the firm has been accused of acting inappropriately. It also recently surfaced that the company had been distributing video news reports to media outlets at the behest of the Bush Administration. These video news reports were aimed to appear as if they were real news reports, and Ketchum went so far as to use a former reporter in the clips. Television stations around the country aired reports that consumers thought were news but were nothing more than propaganda.
The Public Relations Society of America, often quiet in times of turmoil, spoke up against the Williams-Ketchum alliance. “As public relations professionals, we are disheartened by this type of tactic,” Judith T. Phair, former president and chief executive officer of PRSOA, said in a statement.
“Any paid endorsement that is not fully disclosed as such and is presented as objective news coverage [is a violation of the group’s code of ethics,] which requires that public relations professionals engage in open, honest communications and fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.”
In an ironic twist, public relations firms initially found themselves on the defensive in the wake of the Armstrong-Ketchum revelation. Quickly taking an offensive tact, however, the public relations industry fought back, not willing to be painted with a black-eye by one firm’s questionable actions.
“[The fact Mr. Williams was paid to disseminate positive assessments of the law] destroys a lot of the credibility a lot of good people have built [in the PR industry],” Al Golin, chairman of GolinHarris, told The New York Times.
“You have to be smart enough to say no to a client,” Golin said. “[Or say that something] is a stupid idea, even if it comes from the client. You may keep the client happy by saying yes all the time, but it’s very short-sighted.” Golin’s remarks should hit home for PR people, most of whom struggle to keep clients happy, as many clients mistake advertising for public relations and have little understanding of what public relations really constitutes. Keep Golin’s comments handy the next time a client has a request or idea that is, for lack of a better term, blatantly stupid.
With the media’s credibility low, the credibility of the public relations industry is not far behind. Those of us on the inside understand the delicate balance of the public relations/media relationship, but the vast majority of the population sees public relations and the media operating in tandem, not independently. Firms like Ketchum and quasi-journalists like Armstrong Williams do nothing but help support the latter view.
Sooner or later, both the media and the public relations industry will have to answer for their sins. The digital printing press will see to that, even if someone in the mainstream media is unwilling to do so.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.