NCLB controversy will be worth it if industry learns from errors made

Ketchum Communication recently sub-contracted with a small PR and ad shop I own Graham Williams Group to place two, one-minute ad spots on my show "The Right Side" supporting the Department of Education's No Child Left Behind Act.

Ketchum Communication recently sub-contracted with a small PR and ad shop I own Graham Williams Group to place two, one-minute ad spots on my show "The Right Side" supporting the Department of Education's No Child Left Behind Act.

They came to us because my syndicated television show has been on the air for ten years and had the national demographics they were trying to reach. It was a standard advertising agreement.

Critics charge that PR firms, beholden to big government contracts, are buying off journalists and commentators in an effort to make good for their clients. They're using me as a prime example. Lost in the hubbub is the fact that I've been supporting school vouchers for years -- long before Ketchum ever approached me about placing legitimate outreach ads in the commercial break-time on my syndicated television show, which I also own.

I have long maintained that school vouchers hold the greatest promise of ending the racial education gap in this country. That is why I have vigorously supported school vouchers for the past decade -- in print, on TV, during media appearances and in lectures. I feel strongly that school choice plans hold the promise of the new civil rights movement.

In hindsight, I should have been more forthcoming when continuing to write about a topic, which my company was being paid to help promote through advertising. The fact is, I run a small business. My business partner and I started our PR firm in 1990 after a successful career of my own in public relations and public affairs. We ran a very successful company providing counsel to corporate, political and non-profit clients nationally. I'm most proud of the fact that our firm hired and has trained some of the very best public relations professionals, many who are minorities and have gone on to work in top PR agencies, in corporate America, and pursue other careers in media.

It was during the mid-90s when I was asked to guest host on a local radio station in Washington, D.C. WOL-AM that what began as a guest host opportunity evolved into a multi-media career that has included a syndicated radio program, television commentary and syndicated print commentator. During this time I continued to operate a scaled down version of my PR firm as a venue to promote issues that I believed in and lend strategic advice.

In between juggling my commentaries and media appearances, we clearly disclosed on our program that advertising was sponsored by the Education Department. However, I did cross the line by accepting advertising for an issue that I frequently write about in my column.

Anyone who knows me understands that I am far from someone that can be bought-and-sold for support on any issues, and that is what ultimately troubles me the most about the resulting effect of coverage on this issue. The bottom line is that I have been consistent in my support of NCLB. Long before Ketchum ever approached me, I have publicly supported this issue.

I also understand that people must be able to trust that my commentary is not being influenced by paid sources. That is why I ultimately apologized and took full responsibility for any appearance of impropriety -- our media, whether journalist, pundit, columnist, or talk show host, should be forthcoming in these situations and take special care to alleviate the perception of conflict of interest. I can assure those who have watched me on television, read my syndicated column, and heard me on radio in the past that my opinions are mine and will continue to be so.

Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum, recently wrote here that the result of the controversy surrounding my support for NCLB could be viewed as a "transformational event" and said that we are all best served by the industry-wide review of similar contracts. I couldn't agree more and believe that ultimately through this process the public will be able to restore any lost faith in media's very important relationship with government and in politics.

Ultimately if I am the catalyst for such action then I can find peace amid the storm.

Armstrong Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist, and CEO of Graham Williams Group

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