The PR story currently dominating national coverage reinforces many of the worst perceptions of the industry, and has potential to permanently link the specter of propaganda with the communications profession in the minds of the public. This is an extraordinarily dismal situation.
Much is written in this week's issue about Ketchum and the agreement made between Armstrong Williams and the Department of Education (DoE), including this page's Op-Ed by Ray Kotcher, the firm's CEO.
Armstrong Williams has taken responsibility for the fact that he did not disclose his commercial relationship with the DoE, which is a step in the right direction. But there are other questions that must be answered by this leading PR firm before it, and the industry, can move forward and try to repair the damage.
The most important is the responsibility that PR agencies must take in forging and evaluating appropriate relationships with third parties on behalf of their clients.
Williams was retained by the DoE through the government agency's contract with Ketchum. His selection as a legitimate and credible spokesperson should have been fully vetted as a function of Ketchum's relationship with the DoE.
If, as Kotcher points out in his editorial, there is a blurring of the roles between media pundits and spokespeople, it is incumbent upon the PR firms, which are, after all, the presumed experts in the areas of media, to question that selection if there was the potential for this sort of conflict to emerge.
The reason for that is simple. While this blurring certainly exists, there is little to no tolerance on the public's part to accept the missteps of the media on matters of public trust. One needs to look no further than CBS News and Dan Rather to understand that.
The fact that a PR agency has failed to protect its client and its own reputation from this well-documented dynamic is extremely discouraging. It's the kind of mistake, frankly, that people expect from organizations that just don't understand PR.
Even if Williams passed muster as a spokesman, regular and thorough follow-up on the manner in which he executed the contract should also have taken place.
Ketchum has a responsibility to its clients to make sure that sub-contractors are playing by the rules and of making the client understand what standards are dictating that judgment.
Party politics will certainly play a role in how lawmakers pursue examples of perceived wrongdoing. But if you can't anticipate problems and strive to avoid those that are under your control, you should not be in the game. The political environment is highly polarized, but that is no excuse for what has happened here.
Also, Ketchum was put on notice about this level of scrutiny by way of the Medicare VNR controversy, which should have led the firm to make sure that it and the DoE (and its other government clients) were not vulnerable.
Ketchum is reviewing its existing government contracts, which is the right thing to do. Other firms should heed this warning and commit to do the same.
The worst thing about this situation is that it could have been avoided - and the PR firm was squarely in the position to do just that.