'NY Times' columnist jumps to conclusions about Bush PR spend too early in the process

Frank Rich's piece in last week's New York Times ("Patron saint of Bush's fake news," March 20) links the lessons of the Enron fiasco with Bush administration communications policies, specifically his Social Security reform campaign, by way of a se

Frank Rich's piece in last week's New York Times ("Patron saint of Bush's fake news," March 20) links the lessons of the Enron fiasco with Bush administration communications policies, specifically his Social Security reform campaign, by way of a se

While we sympathize with every effort to root out poor or unethical practices by PR pros, the government, or anyone else, the twisted logic of the article undermines its goal.

On a number of critical points, Rich takes license with his righteous indignation. For example, he offers, "We don't know what, if any, role Ketchum is playing in the White House's Social Security propaganda push, though we do know the company has received at least $97 million from the government, according to a congressional report."

That $97 million figure is proving to be great fodder for columnists like Rich, proving in their minds how the government is prepared to pay plenty for its spin. But that figure has not been pulled apart sufficiently to explain what portion was directed to PR efforts and what to other media, such as advertising of unknown provenance. We are trying to understand that figure before assigning it nefarious interpretations or connecting it to other programs Ketchum might or might not be involved in. There is a huge difference between what an organization will spend for PR and its spend on paid media. It is not clear whether observers like Rich would be as disdainful of an ad spend as they have been of money going toward PR programs.

Rich also takes aim at Susan Molinari, head of Ketchum's lobbying firm, The Washington Group, and president of Ketchum Public Affairs. Rich makes much of the fact that news outlets like CNBC do not refer to her current positions, but rather call her, for example, a "CNBC political analyst" or "former Republican congresswoman."

But surely CNBC and other outlets are aware of Molinari's affiliation. If they are not, they are not doing their jobs. Moreover, they are only too aware of the cachet of securing a former congresswoman and might be reluctant to dilute that impact by mentioning her current affiliation. In this climate, that is surely changing. But the same pattern has been apparent with former White House press secretaries Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, who are often quoted by mainstream news outlets. Their current, high-level PR roles are not often mentioned, possibly to the dismay of their respective organizations. PR agencies benefit from the experience and profile of these individuals, just as media benefit from seeking out their perspectives. Ultimately, it is the media's responsibility to fully disclose the affiliations of those appearing in print or broadcast.

Rich is absolutely correct in one respect: Enron taught everyone a lesson. Companies are still grappling with the financial and time-management burdens of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. Newly empowered boards of directors are no longer the cozy rubber stamps to the will of the CEO. Employees are emerging as critical stakeholders in a more meaningful way than ever before, and the public is legitimately skeptical of leaders of all kinds.

He is also correct that slick corporate videos and PR stunts could not save Enron and will not help the government sell flawed policies to the people. No competent PR professional would pretend otherwise.

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