NEW YORK—Ketchum, the public relations agency at the center of the Armstrong Williams “pay for play” controversy, and the Council of Public Relations Firms, which in its earlier statements appeared to condone the payments made to the conservative commentator, have both issued statements clarifying their positions and emphasizing their commitment to ethical practices.
Both Ketchum and the Council drew criticism for what was perceived as a slow or inadequate response to the crisis, after news reports indicated that Ketchum, working on behalf of the Department of Education, had paid $250,000 to a PR firm owned by Williams in exchange for producing VNRs and including favorable editorial comment on the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative on his syndicated TV show.
Both Ketchum chief executive Ray Kotcher and Council chairman Harris Diamond (also chief executive of Weber Shandwick Worldwide) indicated they had held back on commenting until this week because they were not in full possession of the facts.
Said Kotcher, “Ketchum is committed to adhering to industry guidelines and to high ethical standards in every aspect of its business practices. Ketchum has its own Code of Business Ethics, which includes a commitment to present our clients’ products, services, or positions truthfully and accurately. Every new Ketchum colleague is asked to sign this code upon joining the firm.”
In working with the Department of Education to create advertising for its No Child Left Behind Act, Kotcher said, Ketchum contracted with the Graham Williams Group. “Long before he entered a contract with us, Armstrong Williams, principal of this advertising and public relations agency and also a commentator, was an advocate for the No Child Left Behind program, which he strongly supported during a number of television appearances.
“We should have recognized the potential issues in working with a communications firm operated by a commentator. Williams repeatedly has acknowledged that he should have disclosed the nature of his relationship with the Department of Education. We agree. As a result, this work did not comply with the guidelines of our agency and our industry. Under those guidelines, it is clear we should have encouraged greater disclosure. There was a lapse of judgment in this situation. We regret that this has occurred.”
He said Ketchum was putting in place a new policy for the signing and authorization of contracts with spokespeople and subcontractors, all of which will be expected to abide bu Ketchum’s ethical standards, and that it has communicated internally to underscore guidelines about how its people should represent our client work to the media,
The firm has also been working with external legal counsel to investigate the facts associated with its contract with the Department and the Graham Williams Group.
Diamond, meanwhile, was responding the earlier remarks by Council president Kathy Cripps, in which she appeared to indicate that Ketchum bore no ethical culpability. Cripps has reportedly apologized to Council members for speaking without consulting with them first.
Says Diamond, “While the Council is not in a position to review the Department of Education contract, nor should we be, Ketchum has informed us that it is reviewing all of the issues relating to this matter. We all have high regard for the Ketchum management team, and I am confident it will take whatever action is appropriate.”
At the same time he added, “We want to make sure that the Council’s position is clear: Payments to journalists for specific coverage—“pay for play”—is unacceptable.
“Our industry often works with third parties, so it is vital for our profession that the integrity of these relationships and associated channels of communication not be compromised.”
Commenting on the closer scrutiny expected for all government work in the wake of the crisis, Diamond added, “Public relations firms have worked ethically and productively with government entities for decades. Outreach programs inform the public about important health issues, social programs and other activities of the government, and PR firms play an important role in those programs.”