An article that appeared in a recent issue of Harper's Magazine has set up a heated debate about the nature of lobbying work with foreign governments, as well as journalistic ethics and practices.
Called "Their Men in Washington: Undercover with DC's Lobbyists for Hire," the article recounts how Harper's Washington editor Ken Silverstein, calling himself Kenneth Case, posed as a consultant with a fictional London-based investment firm, The Maldon Group.
The story tells of how Case tricked two firms, APCO Worldwide and Cassidy & Associates, into describing how they would help improve the image of and establish better communications for Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country rich in energy resources, but with a government that Human Rights Watch and other activist groups have called both repressive and undemocratic.
In one-time meetings with each firm last February, Silverstein was presented with ideas that - if the agency were offered the business and chose to accept it - would entail all the standard PR, public affairs, and lobbying work that firms do on behalf of foreign clients, from arranging meetings with administration officials and members of Congress to writing and placing favorable Op-Eds.
Neither APCO nor Cassidy recognized Silverstein, a former LA Times investigative reporter who has reported on Washington and lobbying for a number of years. They didn't realize they'd been duped until shortly before the article was published in Harper's July issue. And they weren't given the opportunity to comment before publication. Silverstein says the agencies would simply have started "spinning" a false version of the story.
What followed publication were a number of interviews in media outlets, such as National Public Radio and Bill Moyers Journal, with Silverstein describing the information he got from the companies, while APCO - on NPR, blogs, and its Web site - expressed outrage about Silverstein's deception, calling it a "violation of recognized journalistic principles."
Cassidy & Associates has been much quieter in its response, saying nothing on the record except for a statement questioning Silverstein's tactics and declaring that the firm always works in concert with US foreign policy interests.
Media reporter Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post and on CNN's Reliable Sources has said that in this case, the journalistic deception wasn't worth it, serving only to further public distrust of the media's overall credibility.
But Silverstein tells PRWeek that he's received hundreds of gratifying e-mails thanking him for the article and that APCO and Cassidy's focus on "journalistic ethics" is just a diversionary tactic intended to shift focus away from the firms' willingness to consider associating with Turkmenistan.
APCO Worldwide CEO Margery Kraus calls Silverstein a sensationalistic "advocacy journalist" who doesn't understand how public affairs firms select and work with clients. In addition, Turkmenistan's new president may have been elected under a reportedly rigged voting process, but Kraus says the State Department has indicated the country is showing signs of becoming more open to the outside world.
Silverstein counters that the State Department is often willing to cooperate with questionable regimes for the sake of security.
"If 'advocacy journalist' means trying to shed light on the seamier side of government, then, yeah, I guess I am one," he says.
Apart from the primary actors, meanwhile, the story has provoked a variety of opinions across the blogosphere. Some call Silverstein unethical; others say the firms are. For others still, lobbyists and PR firms are just representatives, not arbiters of justice.
Laurence Socci, chief executive manager of a small lobbying firm called The CLA Group, commented in a blog that he would "represent the devil himself if the price was right."
"Of course, I wouldn't do anything illegal," Socci tells PRWeek. "But if a person or entity is looking for some help communicating with Congress, I will do it, and it doesn't really matter to me who it is."