Paul Holmes

'Times' coverage misses point that ethics impact entire industry, not just public firms

'Times' coverage misses point that ethics impact entire industry, not just public firms

One of the problems with writing about the PR business approximately once a decade is that when you finally get around to it, your understanding of the issues is likely to be superficial and your perspective easily swayed by individuals with strong convictions, a clear agenda, and a persuasive line of argument.

That's why we shouldn't be too tough on The New York Times for its disappointing coverage of the ethical crisis facing the PR industry in the wake of the Armstrong Williams controversy.

In its first serious coverage of the PR business since Hill & Knowlton was trying to push America into war on behalf of Kuwaiti petro-billionaires, the Times carefully avoided any discussion of the ethical issues raised by the payments to Williams, the use of public funds for political propaganda purposes, and the refusal of TV news stations to clearly identify those segments shot by their own cameramen and those supplied by third parties - all of which would have required serious thought and significant understanding of the business.

Instead, the Times article focused on the non-issue of public ownership, as if PR's ethical purity had never been called into question before the emergence of Interpublic, Omnicom, and WPP as major players in our industry.

Consider this spectacular non sequitur: "Communications conglomerates ... make much more money from advertising than from public relations. As a result, critics say, firms like Ketchum that operate inside conglomerates are pushing harder to fatten the bottom line." Is the implication that by fattening its bottom line, Ketchum is going to make as much money for Omnicom as one of the giant ad agencies? One could just as easily make the case that because PR firms are such a small part of the overall empire, they have more latitude.

Public ownership has been a mixed blessing for the PR industry, but it has been a blessing. It has given agencies the resources to expand internationally, to offer a broader portfolio of services, to invest in technology, and to draw on resources, such as research, that are clearly more affordable in a group context than they are as standalone elements of a PR firm. It has also raised the quality of financial discipline and agency management.

The idea that there's inherent conflict between profitability - even at 17% margins - and professionalism is absurd. Sustained success for any PR agency, public or private, can only be built on the highest ethical and professional standards, and the managers of most large PR firms understand that.

The crisis of ethics is an issue for all of us, not just publicly traded PR firms, and we have to face it as an industry.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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