Ketchum pins liability for DoE disclosure on Williams

WASHINGTON: Ketchum bore no responsibility for disclosing columnist and pundit Armstrong Williams' status as a paid advocate for the Department of Education (DoE), said Lorraine Thelian, senior partner in charge of North American operations for the Omnicom agency.

WASHINGTON: Ketchum bore no responsibility for disclosing columnist and pundit Armstrong Williams' status as a paid advocate for the Department of Education (DoE), said Lorraine Thelian, senior partner in charge of North American operations for the Omnicom agency.

"[Williams] has said numerous times that he should've disclosed and we agree with that," she said. "We would assume that the commentator pundit/would disclose. That's an assumption that you make."

As part of a contract with the DoE, Ketchum arranged for Williams to be paid $240,000 to tape ads about the No Child Left Behind Act and to comment on the bipartisan-approved law during his broadcasts.

But Thelian, in the agency's only comments to the media since the contract was reported in USA Today on January 7, denied charges that Ketchum had acted inappropriately.

"It's not like we were pitching him to other media as a spokesperson," she said. "Whatever he did once that contract was put together, he did on his own."

Thelian said that Ketchum did not contractually require Armstrong to disclose the arrangement.

"We would never typically do that," she said. "But maybe it's something that we should be looking at in the future."

Williams said he did disclose his financial arrangement with the DoE on several occasions, but took responsibility for the oversight.

"I made the decision," Williams told PRWeek. "No one can blame Ketchum for my lapse in ethical judgment."

Thelian said Ketchum has already conducted an internal review of government contracts and has not discovered any similar problems. An external review is also planned.

Nonetheless, several congressional Democrats are demanding an investigation, citing a possible violation of the Publicity & Propaganda Act. The act states that the government cannot release information or promotional products without clearly identifying itself as the source.

Ketchum, Home Front Communications, and the Department of Health and Human Services were already cited for violating the act by the General Accounting Office last year after producing VNRs promoting a new Medicare law that did not identify themselves as government productions.

Objections are being voiced within the PR community, as well. Judith Phair, president of the Public Relations Society of America, said Ketchum's arrangement violated generally accepted disclosure rules.

"There is a bond of trust that has to exist among the public relations professionals, the media, and the general community," she said. "It is clearly unethical when that disclosure does not occur."

Williams episode sparks debate on disclosure ethics

The controversy surrounding Ketchum's subcontract with Armstrong Williams has ignited an emotional debate within the industry over the ethics of disclosure.

The fact remains that there is no single set of professional rules to which all practitioners adhere. However, several professional groups do publish ethical guidelines.

The PRSA Code of Provisions' "Disclosure of Information" section reads: "A member shall ... reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented," and proscribes front groups and lying by omission. Another section characterizes the practice of giving gifts to influence press coverage as "improper conduct."

The Council of PR Firms' Code of Ethics reads, "In communicating with the public and media, member firms will maintain total accuracy and truthfulness. ... The sources of communications and sponsors of activities will not be concealed."

President Tom Martin of the Arthur W. Page Society, which counts Ketchum chairman emeritus David Drobis among its VPs, said, "We can be passionate advocates for a particular position ... but we have to make clear the source of that advocacy."

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