In my four and a half years at PRWeek, nothing has prompted more indignation and agitation than the Ketchum/Armstrong Williams controversy - because of the nature of the issue at the heart of it and because of public statements that have been made by organizations and individuals.
I hope that the industry can now take a collective deep breath and move forward, even while this situation will continue to play out in the public sphere.
Legislators will continue to demand accountability for this situation and may ultimately root out more examples of unethical or ambiguous practices. But within the PR industry itself, it's time to calm down and consider how to constructively move forward, while acknowledging that there are many lessons that have been learned.
First, the PR industry needs to get smarter about working with the media when the industry itself becomes the story.
When the news broke in USA Today, the response from the principals involved, as well as industry associations and individuals, was inconsistent, too hasty, and, at times, self-serving. Overall, comments lacked any message relating to the fundamental belief, which most in the profession share, that PR is an essential tool that helps government inform and empower the public.
Yes, we know all about editing and how it leaves all the good stuff on the cutting- room floor. But PR pros need to approach these media opportunities with the same level of intelligence and strategy that they would provide for their clients.
Communicators must also remember that a negative perception of PR will most often dictate the journalist's point of view. It's unfortunate, but true.
Second, while the PR industry is mostly unanimous on the ethical problems of pay-for-play journalism, what constitutes the practice isn't always clear.
One agency CEO put it like this, by way of example: If Oprah Winfrey was found to have accepted money to give away Pontiacs on her show, would that shock us? How would we feel if Katie Couric accepted payment to talk about a worthy nonprofit on Today? What if Fortune's editor was paid to appear as a panelist for a conference sponsored by GE?
As a PR pro, your gut reaction to these questions should be multiplied 100 times over in order to begin to gauge the reaction of the layperson to such a revelation. This is a critical topic for the industry going forward.
There is potential for PR to provide leadership on navigating this paradigm. Equally, more examples of poor judgment by industry leaders will destroy the trust essential to make that happen.
The entire industry must mobilize to prevent the Ketchum issue from creating a backlash against PR contracts throughout the federal government, and down the public affairs food chain.
At PRWeek, we've already seen how the Fleishman-Hillard controversy in LA has impacted local public affairs contracts. One public official in the region recently remonstrated with one of our editor's over the use of the term "public relations" to describe a program they were working on with a firm.
"Haven't you heard about the Fleishman situation?" he asked her, even though his department was entirely unconnected to the matter.
That local problem seems minuscule compared to the current situation. But that kind of knee-jerk response to the term "public relations" should put everyone on notice that this is a problem the entire profession will have to share.