Ketchum-DoE episode necessitates look at definition of PR

A few more things need to be said in the wake of the Department of Education/Ketchum/Armstrong Williams flap.

A few more things need to be said in the wake of the Department of Education/Ketchum/Armstrong Williams flap.

Much talk has been made of the gray line of professional propriety this trio crossed in its zeal to promote the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law. Fingers have wagged, invoking the specter of bad ethics and, notably, propaganda.

But criticism of this alleged pay-for-play scheme needs to be carefully aimed because we do - and are expected to - engage in forms of free-market advocacy, a mere conceptual stone's throw from definitions of propaganda. If we don't acknowledge and defend this fact, we paint a benign picture of the business and jeopardize our most essential rights as advocates.

On January 11, House Democrats came down hard on the scandal, calling for an investigation of "covert propaganda." In her January 17 editorial, PRWeek editor-in-chief Julia Hood speculated that the matter would link propaganda with PR, a point with which Stuart Elliott of The New York Times agreed. In his January 19 column, he warned that PR and public affairs agencies will now be scrutinized as they search for the line that divides "influencing public discourse and disseminating propaganda."

Influencing public discourse and disseminating propaganda? What's the difference? Most anyone conjures negative images of propaganda, usually involving warfare, religion, or politics, But what, precisely, is the definition of propaganda, much less "covert" propaganda?

Here are two entries from Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary: (1) A group or movement organized for spreading a particular doctrine or system of principles. (2) Dissemination of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. With the exceptions of rumor and injuring, these are consistent with Elliott's sanctioned view that PR influences public discourse.

What jumps out is the reference to doctrine. Maybe, I wondered, there's an ethical problem with that. Webster's American College Dictionary defines doctrine this way: a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government: The Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine? I looked this up, as well. This was a US president's diplomatic

bow shot in 1823 that warned Europeans not to meddle with developing Latin American nations. That doesn't sound like propaganda. Come to think of it, neither does No Child Left Behind.

So do the words "rumor" and "injuring" take propaganda off the table? If proper disclosure is observed, I don't think so. Every organization competes in a marketplace. Each plays a continuous game of positioning and de-positioning for survival and prosperity. To help improve the relative advantage of a client or organization in its marketplace, it is a crucial necessity for PR pros to both elevate and subordinate competition - not to seed false rumors or injure in the literal sense, of course -

but indeed to detract, muffle, slow, or stop rival organizations as much as to flatter or fan a cause. Doing both is our emphatic obligation.

House Democrats apparently don't mind propaganda. They just don't like it when it's covert. This is surely because propaganda has taken wicked turns in history, particularly in World Wars I and II where it was honed to a devastating degree. The US Department of Defense's Dictionary of Military Terms lists three gradations of propaganda:

White Propaganda. Propaganda disseminated and acknowledged by the sponsor or by an accredited agency thereof.

Gray Propaganda. Propaganda that does not specifically identify any source.

Black Propaganda. Propaganda that purports to emanate from a source other than the true one.

What we have, then, in the DoE/Ketchum/Williams case is not the impropriety of influencing public discourse, but rather three parties that failed to disclose their roles in their efforts to influence that public discourse - gray propaganda, to be precise.

Many professionals, academics, and associations idealize PR as a management function for building trust and reputation. But trust and reputation exist in marketplaces and, as such, they must be defended and asserted in the context of competing forces. That mere fact requires PR practitioners to operate as advocates, not simply ministers of goodwill and ethics. This doesn't absolve our fated trio of blame. Fairness in the process of advocacy is paramount. But hedging on disclosure is what has taken us out of bounds, not - dare I write it - disseminating propaganda.

  • Alan Kelly is CEO and managing partner of Applied Communications Group, based in Potomac, MD.

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