Paul Holmes

PR must share responsibility with press to solve ethical dilemma posed by the Williams episode

PR must share responsibility with press to solve ethical dilemma posed by the Williams episode

The mainstream media's reaction to stories suggesting that the Department of Education paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind initiative on his syndicated TV program has been predictably outraged - some might even say self-righteous.

But they should remember the old saying about people who live in glass houses and the wisdom of throwing stones.

I am in no way condoning the practice of pay-for-play, if that's what happened here. In fact, it's pretty much indefensible on both ethical and pragmatic grounds - it corrupts the media, it diminishes the value of PR (which depends on the integrity of earned media), and it's almost bound to backfire.

But if this deal crossed the ethical line (if there was a formal quid pro quo promising favorable editorial comment in exchange for the $240,000 Williams received) almost every well-known commentator treads pretty close to that same line.

According to Ken Auletta's Backstory, a book that takes a hard look at several shortcomings of the mainstream media, reporters like Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Brit Hume, Bernard Shaw, and columnists Michael Kinsley, Bob Novak, and Fred Barnes are among those who routinely receive five- or six-figure fees from corporations and trade associations to give speeches. Most of them, questioned by Auletta, refused to identify the groups to whom they had spoken or to discuss the payments they received.

Do the payments these journalists get from the organizations they cover (or might, one day) influence their reporting? Since there's so little transparency, we might never know for sure. But they are bound to lead to greater skepticism about media integrity.

Moreover, it's ironic that many of these reporters are crusaders for openness and transparency when it comes to government and corporations, but are insistent upon a right to privacy when it comes to their own dealings. (In Auletta's book, Donaldson claims not to remember the names of organizations to whom he has spoken, then denies that there's any conflict of interest.)

If the Williams case sparks discussion within the PR industry - and between PR pros and the press - then all the controversy will be worth it because there are issues here that need to be addressed.

And it is not sufficient for PR people to point to the media and claim that the onus is on them to resolve the ethical dilemma. PR people clearly played a role in creating this controversy; they now need to be seen as part of the solution. That means clearer ethical guidance from both the PRSA and the Council of PR Firms, and individual leadership from some of the larger agencies.

  • 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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