US press critic and writer Jay Rosen takes a hefty swipe at PR bloggers, with a blanket accusation that they have ignored a pay-for-promotion case in the US that has significant ethical implications for the public relations profession:
Bloggers are supposed to be a little more curious than most. They are supposed to apply a second degree of scrutiny as they do "their job" in the new ecosystem of news. When the press pack goes that-a-way they ought to look this-a-way more. And they should be alert to events in the moral life of the people whose world they chronicle. [...] but somehow [it's been] nearly invisible to PR bloggers, who, aside from a few mentions here and there, have neglected this juicy and far-reaching story.
Here's what this is about:
- The Bush administration paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent black pundit, $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally-syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
- The payment was made via Ketchum Communications, one of the largest PR firms.
- The US Education Department, through Ketchum, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" No Child Left Behind (which is legislation designed "to ensure that children in every classroom enjoy the benefits of well-prepared teachers, research-based curriculum and safe learning environments")
- Neither Williams nor anyone else disclosed these arrangements, which became public after USA Today broke the story on 6 January
Williams has subsequently issued a public apology.
As a business communicator in Europe who blogs about PR and related communication issues, I'll hold my hand up - I haven't posted commentary about this story until this post (but see below). I was aware of it - I'd read Richard Edelman's commentary on the issue - yet it seemed to me to be a particular US issue. None of the US newspapers that I read had reported on it. Yet another case of ethics in US business taking a nose dive, I thought.
Whoa, wrong. It's actually a huge issue, one that ought to be a lively discussion point for PR professionals. So, Mr Rosen, thanks for the swipe.
Yet I feel that Rosen is being somewhat disingenuous in his commentary. He seems to write with some glee about how PR bloggers have dropped the ball while the press have scored a try and made the conversion (sorry, I can't do American football metaphors: that's a rugby one). Otherwise I'd likely, albeit a bit reluctantly, agree with Rosen's sweeping accusation.
This isn't only a US issue; it has implications for the PR profession as a whole. I don't think anyone will disagree with that.
In which case, where are the condemnations - or at least some clear and meaningful public comments - from our professional associations? The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)? The Institute of Public Relations (IPR) in the UK? The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA)? The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)? Or is it only leaders in the profession like Edelman who take a clear stand?
Going back to Rosen's post yesterday and his commentary that none of the bloggers he checked had posted anything about this story, let me say that you need to include podcasts these days when you do such checking.
In the latest For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report that Shel Holtz and I do each week, recorded last Monday 17 January, we had a specific segment in which we discussed this very issue. Shel raised the topic and stated quite clearly that he had major concerns about this ethical issue and what it means for the profession (and he had posted commentary on his blog on 14 January). You can download the podcast here (MP3, 24.9Mb); the discussion on the Ketchum-Williams case starts 33:07 minutes into the show.
In any event, Rosen's post has served one purpose - this topic will firmly get more PR bloggers' attention now. I'm more interested in seeing what our professional associations have to say.