Payments to Commentator Spark Ethical Crisis
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Holmes Report

Payments to Commentator Spark Ethical Crisis

Payments made to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in exchange for favorable editorial coverage of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative have created the biggest ethical controversy the public relations industry has seen for many years.

Paul Holmes

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Payments made to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in exchange for favorable editorial coverage of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative have created the biggest ethical controversy the public relations industry has seen for many years

The crisis was fueled last week by several announcements, including a condemnation of the payments by the Public Relations Society of America, a statement by the Council of Public Relations Firms that appeared to excuse the practice, and bipartisan pressure that led Education Secretary Rod Paige to order an investigation into the contract between his department and the journalist.

Meanwhile, the scandal attracted tough talk from several sources within the public relations industry, most notably Edelman president Richard Edelman, who wrote at his blog that “the response from several key members of the PR establishment has been frankly very disappointing” and Eliot Sloane, president of Sloane & Company, who withdrew his firm from the Council in protest at what he saw as the group’s defense of Ketchum, the DoE’s public relations agency.

Williams—who also operates a public relations firm, Graham Williams Group—was retained by Ketchum, to help promote the No Child Left Behind initiative to minority groups. Under the terms of the contract, Williams agreed to produce and air two 60-second television spots and two radio spots featuring Paige  But the contract also said that Ketchum would “arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment” on the law during his broadcasts and gave Paige and other department officials the right to appear as guests on Williams’ shows, as Paige did, conducting a one-hour interview on a show called On Point.

In a crisis that involves both the media and public relations people, the response from the media side—including Williams himself—was swift. Williams acknowledged he had “made an error of judgment” in accepting the payment. “Even though I’m not a journalist—I’m a commentator—I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard,” said Williams. “My judgment was not the best. I wouldn’t do it again, and I learned from it.”

Tribune Media Services said it would stop syndicating Williams’ column in response to the revelations. “Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party,” the company said in a statement.

Other media outlets have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the “pay for coverage” deal.

But the response from the public relations industry has been mixed.

The PRSA took an early lead, publishing a statement by president and CEO Judith Phair in which she welcomed Williams’ public apology and said the Society was :deeply disturbed”: by the payments, describing the tactic as “not in keeping with the ethical practice of public relations…. The relationship should have been disclosed up front, no question.”

Phair said the payments were “clearly contrary to the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, which requires that public relations professionals engage in open, honest communications, and fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.”

But in a New York Times article, Council of PR Firms president Kathy Cripps said that paying for editorial coverage did not violate the Council’s code of ethics and said the onus for full disclosure rested with Williams.

That statement prompted an angry reaction from Sloane, who pulled his firm out of the Council and said publicly that he was “disappointed…. I would expect that the trade organization that represents our industry would be more forceful in talking about guidelines, roles and responsibilities, and ethics…

“When I tell people what I do… I get this look, like ‘well, look at the guy who would sell his soul for an article in the New York Times.’ I have fought to make the argument that our profession is noble and ethical and we can truly influence the public debate on key issues. Then an issue like this appears that cuts right to the heart of ethical practices and the silence from our industry leadership is deafening.”

By the end of the week, Cripps had issued a statement intended to clarify her New York Times quote. Said Cripps, “Public relations is built on trust and credibility... To that end the industry must provide full disclosure to abide by clearly defined standards of practice.” But her comments stopped well short of condemning the “pay for placement” approach.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education denied that the payment made to Williams included the editorial comment.

“The funds for the Graham Williams Group's services went exclusively toward the production and airtime of advertisements in which I described the law and encouraged viewers and listeners to call the Department's toll-free information line,” said Paige. “The funds covered those costs alone and nothing more.”

That interpretation of the facts appeared to be contradicted by the contact between the Department and Ketchum, which specified that “Ketchum shall arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” and that “Secretary Paige and other Department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests to discuss NCLB and other important education reform issues.”

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