Ethics and professional responsibility

US press critic and writer Jay Rosen takes a hefty swipe at PR bloggers, with a blanket accusation that they have ignored a pay-for-promotion case in the US that has significant ethical implications for the public relations profession:

Bloggers are supposed to be a little more curious than most. They are supposed to apply a second degree of scrutiny as they do "their job" in the new ecosystem of news. When the press pack goes that-a-way they ought to look this-a-way more. And they should be alert to events in the moral life of the people whose world they chronicle. […] but somehow [it’s been] nearly invisible to PR bloggers, who, aside from a few mentions here and there, have neglected this juicy and far-reaching story.

Here’s what this is about:

  • The Bush administration paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent black pundit, $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally-syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
  • The payment was made via Ketchum Communications, one of the largest PR firms.
  • The US Education Department, through Ketchum, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America’s Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" No Child Left Behind (which is legislation designed "to ensure that children in every classroom enjoy the benefits of well-prepared teachers, research-based curriculum and safe learning environments")
  • Neither Williams nor anyone else disclosed these arrangements, which became public after USA Today broke the story on 6 January

Williams has subsequently issued a public apology.

As a business communicator in Europe who blogs about PR and related communication issues, I’ll hold my hand up – I haven’t posted commentary about this story until this post (but see below). I was aware of it – I’d read Richard Edelman’s commentary on the issue – yet it seemed to me to be a particular US issue. None of the US newspapers that I read had reported on it. Yet another case of ethics in US business taking a nose dive, I thought.

Whoa, wrong. It’s actually a huge issue, one that ought to be a lively discussion point for PR professionals. So, Mr Rosen, thanks for the swipe.

Yet I feel that Rosen is being somewhat disingenuous in his commentary. He seems to write with some glee about how PR bloggers have dropped the ball while the press have scored a try and made the conversion (sorry, I can’t do American football metaphors: that’s a rugby one). Otherwise I’d likely, albeit a bit reluctantly, agree with Rosen’s sweeping accusation.

This isn’t only a US issue; it has implications for the PR profession as a whole. I don’t think anyone will disagree with that.

In which case, where are the condemnations – or at least some clear and meaningful public comments – from our professional associations? The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)? The Institute of Public Relations (IPR) in the UK? The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA)? The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)? Or is it only leaders in the profession like Edelman who take a clear stand?

Going back to Rosen’s post yesterday and his commentary that none of the bloggers he checked had posted anything about this story, let me say that you need to include podcasts these days when you do such checking.

In the latest For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report that Shel Holtz and I do each week, recorded last Monday 17 January, we had a specific segment in which we discussed this very issue. Shel raised the topic and stated quite clearly that he had major concerns about this ethical issue and what it means for the profession (and he had posted commentary on his blog on 14 January). You can download the podcast here (MP3, 24.9Mb); the discussion on the Ketchum-Williams case starts 33:07 minutes into the show.

In any event, Rosen’s post has served one purpose – this topic will firmly get more PR bloggers’ attention now. I’m more interested in seeing what our professional associations have to say.

9 thoughts on “Ethics and professional responsibility

  1. Do you think he was being devisive in order to provoke a reaction? To expose something without taking a real stand requires a certain amount of posturing. Then, for others to discuss it openly in the communications industry can be a death knoll for those who earn their big bucks from corporates.
    I would like to see someone taking an inventory – or at least opening a reserve to cache the comments – of what the dialogue bubbles to the surface. Curious to see what tracks it leaves behind for us to recognize and how this enthnology emerges.

  2. That did cross my mind, Colby. If that was the goal, well, I think it’s working judging by the posts and comments that are springing up around the PR blogosphere.
    Whatever the motive, Jay Rosen has actually done a good deed in throwing the ethics spotlight firmly on such an issue. Yet I wonder what difference if any it will make when loads of PR bloggers now start discussing this.
    I think it presents an excellent opportunity for one of the professional associations to defend ethics in PR. For instance, IABC (of which I’m a long-time and very committed member) has a code of ethics that, in my view, is a benchmark standard anywhere in the world. When you renew your membership each year, you’re reminded of your ethical responsibility as a communicator as you have to state your continuing support for and commitment to that code of behaviour.
    I wonder if anyone at Ketchum is an IABC member? If so, how does what the people concerned did gel with that code?
    I was just reading Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher’s op-ed piece about this affair in the US edition of PR Week, published a week ago. It reads to me like excuses and buck-passing:
    Re tracking commentaries, this Technorati search throws up over 800 results so far:
    It’s often the comments to various posts that produce the most interesting insights, though. Can’t see how to track all those, unfortunately.

  3. PR Bloggers go stand in the corner….

    Jay Rosen has fired a broadside at the PR blogging “community” – well all oppressed groups should have a collective identity.

  4. The Armstrong Williams issue is only one of a whole series of major PR stories that have been marked by mostly a “deafening silence” — others include the role of the CBS PR department in Rathergate (it’s all in the report) and the LA Water Department overbilling issue (which has now led to indictments, no less).
    The big PR trade associations shy away from these kinds of problems, for lots of reasons. But it seems to me that these are absolutely the best “teaching moment” opportunities.

  5. Glyn, you’re right about the deafening silence. I thought Jeremy Pepper’s post on that subject today was a very good take:
    As for the PR associations, I am actually surprised that there hasn’t been a loud public clamour over this or any of the other issues by one of the bodies that professes to be a guardian of ethics in public relations. But perhaps I’m completely naive.
    So, as you say, I expect it will be left to “teaching moment” opportunities to discuss what’s right and what’s not. Something for the future, at least.

  6. Ketchum, Williams, Rosen and the wood shed

    Jay Rosen has rightly taken the PR blogging community to the wood shed for our (relative) lack of commentary on the Williams/Ketchum contract. Many PR bloggers DID comment on the controversy – even those of us who do not work or live in the United Stat…

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