ProPublica piece on PR wrongly focuses on sins of the past

Connecting the dots and following the back story is what comprises great investigative journalism.

Connecting the dots and following the back story is what comprises great investigative journalism. But this week, the normally investigative standout ProPublica failed when it tried its hand at covering the PR industry.

The outlet reported on Ketchum winning a lucrative contract from the US Department of Health and Human Services, a story that PRWeek also covered. In its piece, though, ProPublica suggests past grievances make the agency unfit for such work.

“PR Firm Behind Propaganda Videos Wins Stimulus Contract,” screamed the headline. It went on to say Ketchum was “hip-deep in controversy a few years ago,” recounting the infamous “Karen Ryan reporting” VNR controversy of 2004 with which this readership is all too familiar.

ProPublica isn't wrong in noting Ketchum's involvement in these controversies, but where it fails is in connecting this firm with a more than five-year-old grievance and a 2010 contract. Ketchum has worked on a number – many, many- government, and otherwise, accounts since that time, free of controversy. Moreover, every industry has its derelicts and Ketchum is not one of ours. A few calls to trade publications, associations, or even clients, would have confirmed as much.

Most in the industry would agree that lessons were painfully learned during the controversies that troubled Ketchum years ago, and new best practices instituted for the better.

In December, PRWeek warned PR pros to be upfront about contracts involving stimulus funds. Clearly, this is advice that will continue in relevance. ProPublica's piece, however, also has that familiar hint of general distrust for the PR discipline—a distrust that should keep all more anxious than ever to prove their worth and better explain their jobs.

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