EDITORIAL: In face of controversy, PR pros must step up as biggest advocates for industry services

The Armstrong Williams/Ketchum controversy has become all rolled up with the VNR/Medicare issue, where a video produced to promote a new Medicare law was found to have violated federal statutes by neglecting to identify itself as a government production.

The Armstrong Williams/Ketchum controversy has become all rolled up with the VNR/Medicare issue, where a video produced to promote a new Medicare law was found to have violated federal statutes by neglecting to identify itself as a government production.

The common theme is credibility and what the public will believe is real, or not. When discussing the issues in tandem last month, Meet the Press' Tim Russert observed, incredulously, "These are pseudonews releases, where you have a fake journalist sitting there interviewing a Cabinet secretary, and materials are sent out across the country. What serious or legitimate news organization would ever air something like that?" In the same way that the average viewer, or a producer at a small city news station, might mistake a VNR for real news footage, the average person might also take Russert's words as an invitation to denounce the VNR in all forms. Somehow, though, this threat does not seem to be of obvious concern to the PR industry at large, which was quick to respond to the Williams crisis and see it as the threat to the profession that it could arguably become, at least where government business is concerned. But when it comes to the tools commonly used by the profession to advance the goals of clients - public or private, commercial or governmental - the industry is consistently quiet. In a way it is not surprising. Even in our own pages, the tools or tactics of PR are often siloed from the more strategic coverage. We have not often had an agency CEO or corporate VP extolling the virtues of the latest technologies in the magazine, though it must be said that the savvier among them do so offline. David Armon, COO of PR Newswire, says there is a certain amount of elitism in the profession when it comes to talking about the more tactical side of the business. But he also says that, at least recently, agency CEOs in particular have been wary of the risks of getting tangled up in an ethical quagmire and have sought counsel on what the risks are in disseminating information via various channels. Kevin Foley, CEO of KEF Media Associates, says that many of the people that his company deals with, sometimes at the more junior level, do not always understand the strategy behind the selection of various communications tools, including the types of things that might get a company into trouble. The lack of real media experience is one problem, he adds. Whether the recent media storm has impacted VNR business is debatable - one broadcast company says there has been some backlash against using them by stations. Others, like Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, say that while some Washington-based clients are skittish, they are reassured when they understand the industry safeguards that are in place. But the point is that the PR industry depends on the VNR and other tools to disseminate information on programs of all types and sizes. Therefore, any skepticism about their use has potential to impact the entire profession. Moskowitz, who has been often quoted on the issue, welcomes more vocal support from the industry that needs them. "I'd love to be hanging on the coattails of others," he said. "But I haven't been able to find the coat."

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