NEW YORK—President George W. Bush spoke out last week on the controversy surrounding payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, expressing his disapproval of the contract between the Department of Education and Williams during an interview in USA Today and saying he wanted to prevent a recurrence.
“There needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy,” said the president in his interview. “I appreciate the way Armstrong Williams has handled this, because he has made it very clear that he made a mistake. All of us, the Cabinet, needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”
The president’s comments came amid a flurry of investigations, including an internal investigation by the Department of Education and a probe by the Federal Communications Commission to assess whether broadcast regulations were violated when Williams was paid to provide editorial endorsement of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative during his syndicated television show.
There are also calls for a broader congressional investigation of government public relations contracts and many public relations agency executives are saying privately that they expect to be called to testify in Washington, D.C., on the proper use of public relations by government agencies and the ethical difference between legitimate public education and government propaganda.
The Senate panel that oversees the Department of Education has asked Education Secretary Rod Paige to turn over records of the department’s contracts with public relations firm. In a latter, Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Ia), reminded Paige on the ban on using tax dollars for “covert propaganda” and in a separate statement, Harkin pointed out that the Government Accountability Office had documented other instances of “propaganda” originating at the DoE,
Meanwhile, the FCC launched an investigation into whether Williams broke the law by failing to disclose that he took money from the Department of Education for editorial promotion of its policies. And House Democrats included Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have called for the GAO to investigate the legality of the deal between the DoE, public relations agency Ketchum, and Williams.
The Public Relations Society of America described the proposed investigation into government public relations contracts “a natural fallout” of the controversy over the Williams case.
Said PRSA president Judith Phair, “We are confident that this effort will find what we know to be the truth—that the daily practice of ethical public relations by government employees and the public relations agencies they work with represents a critical government function that serves both the government and its citizens by encouraging the free flow of information.
She said the Society would welcome the opportunity to provide the Senate subcommittee with counsel on what is and what is not legitimate public outreach.
“All public relations, whether for government agencies, nonprofit organizations or corporations, should be conducted in an ethical manner. We believe the Senate investigation will conclude that the vast majority of government public relations efforts are credible and legitimate outreaches to the public.
“As public relations professionals, we are disheartened by undisclosed ‘pay for play’ tactics. This method of promotion does not describe the true practice of public relations.”