Williams scandal is a 'transformational event' in PR

I've been in this business for 25-plus years and every so often I'm able to observe an occurrence which is clearly a transformational event in our industry. This time, I have a front-row seat.

I've been in this business for 25-plus years and every so often I'm able to observe an occurrence which is clearly a transformational event in our industry. This time, I have a front-row seat.

On January 7, a story first appeared in USA Today about the role of Armstrong Williams, a visible, outspoken, conservative commentator who participated in a public-education pro- gram on behalf of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Clearly, NCLB has been a matter of debate in some circles, but it is worth mentioning that the bill cleared Congress with bi-partisan approval and is now the law of the land.

In a competitive bidding process about two years ago, Ketchum was awarded a task order under its Department of Education (DoE) contract to educate parents, teachers, and school administrators about NCLB and to direct them to federal program resources where they could get more information. Williams, also an entrepreneur and founder of an ad/PR shop, was a DoE subcontractor and was paid primarily to produce PSAs and place them on his radio and TV programs. The January 7 story (and subsequent articles) reported that Williams didn't fully disclose this dual role or his DoE ties whenever he commented on NCLB.

Williams has since repeatedly said that he was wrong not to have disclosed this information. We agree, particularly because with government contracts (i.e., taxpayer-funded initiatives), the public has a right to know about the relationship that spokespeople may have to the issues or government agency they represent. Incidentally, Williams was an early NCLB advocate, having begun to write in support of it shortly after the March 2001 bill introduction. And on the surface, Williams' unusual role as both a pundit and information source - through his ad-production firm - would seem to blur the lines that once so clearly defined journalism and news organizations.

Now, while our industry could never unanimously pinpoint the moment when this blurring began, every one of us would surely agree that the meshing grows with each passing day. I'm not sure even the media itself can agree anymore on how to strictly define and distinguish journalists and news organizations.

Consider how technologies - cable, the web, and satellite - have converged with demand for instantaneous, 24/7 information. As a result, traditional news media compete for mindshare and credibility with blogs, while infotainment goes head-to-head with edutainment, sportscasters double as product pitchmen, and paid political advisors double as paid political pundits.

Though Ketchum is currently under the microscope, the PR industry at large is about to be viewed through a telescope. For starters, a public-interest group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies, requesting copies of all contracts with PR firms.

Conducting public outreach on major federal initiatives is not new and, in fact, serves as a fundamental basis for communicating urgent national priorities. For decades, our government has partnered with firms to help educate citizens and improve virtually every facet of their lives - from providing vital information on epidemics, promoting safety-belt usage and proper nutrition, encouraging anti-smoking and anti-drug efforts, and providing guidance to clean the environment. The great shame in this event is not only the unfair collective black eye these programs endure, but the potential for curtailing these very vital outreach programs in the future.

It is no coincidence that this activity occurred in Washington, where political divisiveness is at an all-time high. That is not to excuse Williams' oversight, but it would be a miscalculation to discount the effect of a highly polarized environment, as well.

For our part, Ketchum has begun a thorough review of all existing federal contracts and is retaining an outside firm to conduct a complete process that will surely yield recommendations to improve transparency as it relates to government contracts.

In the short term, all of us who counsel organizations and now are in the spotlight should welcome the opportunity to reexamine these sorts of practices. For the long run, we should view this as, potentially, a transformational event. Ultimately, we all are best served by an industry-wide review of disclosure and other practices in federal contracts. Legitimate news reporting is a cornerstone of democracy and the public should expect the highest standards. We must clarify the rules - for everyone.

PRWeek is a great prospective forum as a starting point, and together we should invite all members of the media to consider working this through with us. I urge all colleagues to take advantage of this front-row seat to ensure that the transformation is for the better.

  • Ray Kotcher is senior partner and CEO at Ketchum.

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