The salon dinner: a cautionary tale

The Washington Post found itself in hot water last week.

The Washington Post found itself in hot water last week. It seems someone from its marketing department sent out a flier to some lobbyists offering an “underwriting opportunity” for their clients to sponsor and participate in a series of “intimate and exclusive” salon dinners, the first of which was to feature an off-the-record healthcare discussion. The flier intimated that White House officials, members of Congress, and Post reporters would attend. The price tag to host and attend a dinner: a mere $25,000 a pop.

The nature of the dinners raised eyebrows in the Post's newsroom and around the country. The blogosphere is still on fire. Why? Because the flier gave the impression that they were facilitating little more than influence-peddling – offering well-heeled industry types exclusive insider access to government officials and Post reporters.

Katharine Weymouth, Post publisher and CEO, wrote a heartfelt and contrite letter this past Sunday apologizing for the whole affair. In the end, the Post decided to put the salon dinners on hold, at least for now.

Having interacted with Post reporters many times over the years (full disclosure: my first real job was as a Post “copy aide”), I know the editorial staff is top-notch and ethical, almost to a fault. I think they simply went about doing these events in the wrong way. The marketing folks got way out in front of the newsroom folks.

This incident is a cautionary tale not only for those in the news media, but for PR and public affairs pros who write proposals and communications plans for clients that tout “outreach to policy-makers and opinion-elites” as a tactic.

Indeed, almost every “inside the Beltway” publication co-sponsors these types of events. They marry-up government officials, corporations, or organizations interested in discussing, and hopefully influencing, policy debates on a whole range of issues. The media usually cover these discussions. Often, PR and public affairs firms act as marriage brokers, alerting their clients about sponsorship opportunities and providing counsel.

These events are not nefarious in and of themselves. Indeed, media organizations that convene these get-togethers are often catalysts for strong, robust debates about important issues. However, we all must walk a fine line when trying to intersect these groups.

The two essential elements (often omitted, in my viewpoint), is that these conclaves should: a) always be on the record; and b) include the viewpoint of individual Americans affected by the issues being debated.

There are essential rights afforded to all Americans – freedom of the press; freedom to petition the government; and freedom to assemble. Add transparency and openness to the mix and we've got a true dialogue. The way it was meant to be.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US State Department, is president of public affairs firm Weber Merritt. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at rtappan@webermerritt.com.

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