Time for Serious Look at Ethical Issues Facing PR
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Holmes Report

Time for Serious Look at Ethical Issues Facing PR

The payments made to Armstrong Williams and other administration-friendly journalists have generated much sound and fury, but so far little serious discussion of the difficult ethical questions they raise for the public relations profession.

Paul Holmes

The payments made to Armstrong Williams and other administration-friendly journalists have generated much sound and fury, but so far little serious discussion of the difficult ethical questions they raise for the public relations profession.

A cynic would be tempted to suggest that when the dust settles—as it eventually will, after a few more mainstream media articles bemoaning the PR industry’s ethical lapses while ignoring the failings of reporters, and after Democrats in Congress have milked the story for every sound-bite they can get out of it—only one thing is certain: that none of the nuanced issues at the heart of the crisis will have received any serious discussion.

But since there are no cynics here at The Holmes Report, perhaps we should take a look at those issues, with the hope that our thoughts might generate some serious soul-searching within the profession—and perhaps even between those on the corporate communications side of the aisle and their colleagues in the media.

The payments to Armstrong Williams and other conservative commentators have given rise to two separate debates: one concerning the proper use of public relations by the federal government (and by extension, other government agencies, at the local, state, and federal levels); the other concerning payments made to reporters.

Most of the media coverage has presented the recipients of the government’s largesse as not-quite-legitimate journalists, suggesting that their more mainstream colleagues would have recognized the conflict immediately and rejected the idea of sullying their wallets with money from the institutions they cover.

But while the Williams instance appears to have involved the clearly corrupt exchange of cash for coverage, the other two columnists—Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus—received consulting fees from the Department of Health & Human Services for their advice on the administration’s “healthy marriage” initiative. It didn’t take long for examples of similar arrangements to surface. For example, The Nation, which was highly critical of the payments to Gallagher, was embarrassed by the revelation that its United Nations correspondent Ian Williams had been working for the U.N. as a media consultant. (Though, to be fair, Williams disclosed the relationship at his website.)

Many reporters, however, routinely accept speaking fees from corporations and trade associations. Is there really any material difference between a speaking fee and a consulting fee? Does the latter have the power to corrupt while the other is just a harmless perk bestowed on those who have achieved professional prominence?

If there has been a whiff of hypocrisy about the media’s response to the scandal, the reaction in the political realm has been almost entirely opportunistic, with Democrats apparently more interested in scoring partisan points than debating the sometimes fine distinction between legitimate communication and propaganda.

A report by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee, for example, looked at the amount spent by the current administration on public relations ($250 million, about twice the amount spent during Clinton’s second term) and concluded, “This rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the administration.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg announced plans to introduce the Stop Government Propaganda Act, which would ensure that “funds appropriated to an executive branch agency may not be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States unless authorized by law.”

The act calls for an end to “news releases or publications that do not clearly identify the government agency responsible for the content,” which is fair enough—although I suspect that aspect of the proposed legislation is designed to address the use of video news releases by government agencies. Those VNRs were, however, clearly identified, at least to the producers who received and elected to air them, and it’s hard to see how new laws could be worded in such a way that producers are compelled to identify the source of footage to their viewers. (Should newspaper reporters also be forced to disclose if a story has been initiated or influenced by a press release? If not, why not? What’s the difference?)

The proposed legislation then goes on to call for a ban on any attempt to manipulate journalists or news organizations; messages created to aid a political party or candidate; messages with a “self-aggrandizing” purpose or “puffery of the administration, agency, executive branch programs or policies or pending legislation;” and, finally, messages that are “so misleading or inaccurate that they constitute propaganda.”

Kennedy and Lautenberg’s proposals would make lousy law: it’s hard to imagine a more subjective set of criteria and in between the black of party political propaganda and the white of legitimate public education there are many shades of grey—too many, it seems to me, for an instrument as blunt as this legislation to distinguish.

Having said that, the proposed legislation can provide a starting point for discussion about what’s ethical and what’s not, and suggests questions public relations professionals—and outside agencies in particular—should ask themselves before embarking on a communications campaign financed with public funds.

There’s a fine dividing line between educating the public about an issue and using it for party political propaganda purposes that presents a challenge.

Using public funds to promote a proposal currently before Congress is clearly unethical. No government agency should use its resources to advocate on behalf of a position that is not already the law of the land—and in fact laws exist to prevent government agencies lobbying Congress.

So when the Bush administration uses employees of the Social Security Administration to sell his plans to scrap social security (the associate commissioner for retirement policy, Andrew Briggs, was a speaker during the president’s recent road show), it appears to be enlisting the support of a government agency for party political purposes. Briggs was not directly lobbying Congress, but he was clearly part of an effort designed to rally support for a specific legislative agenda.

However, once a measure has become the law of the land—like the No Child Left Behind Act, for example—then government agencies have not only a right, but a responsibility to communicate its meaning to the public. But again, there is a dividing line between legitimate education and political propaganda—even if it is not always clear where that line should be drawn.

A communications campaign with the message that “the government has passed the No Child Left Behind Act and this is what you as a parent should know about the new options available to you” seems to me to be perfectly appropriate. But a campaign with the slightly different message that “the Bush administration has passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which will provide you with wonderful new options” seems to me to cross the line between legitimate education and the use of public funds to promote the agenda and philosophy of one political party.

And there are grey areas between those two messages. Is it okay to use the President—or another figure closely associated with one political party—as the spokesperson for the first message, or does that push it across the line into party political propaganda? At the very least, PR people should approach questions that fall into that grey area with caution, taking care not to allow public funds to be used in a way that benefits either political party.

The ethical dilemmas presented by communicating on behalf of government entities need to be considered by anyone doing government work, but the ethical issues raised by payments to journalists are relevant to everyone who practices public relations—and potentially have far broader implications for the profession.

It’s important to examine the purpose of payments to journalists. These fall into three broad categories.

First, there are payments made directly to reporters with the explicit understanding that in exchange for the payment, those reporters will promote a particular point of view through their columns or TV appearances.

It should go without saying that such payments are by definition unethical—a corruption of the journalistic process that undermines the credibility of the media and in so doing damages the credibility of all public relations activity. This is not a question of disclosure or transparency—it is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and ought to result in the immediate dismissal of the guilty party from any position of responsibility.

Second, there are payments made directly to reporters for activities unrelated to their journalistic activities. The payments to Armstrong Williams’ PR firm for the production of video news releases would fall under this heading, but so would the more commonplace payments made to reporters for their participation in corporate or trade group events, including speaking engagements. (This category might also be extended to include Christmas gifts, and even lunches paid for by corporate or agency PR people.)

Many news organizations forbid their reporters from accepting even the smallest gifts, just as federal laws prevent legislators from accepting gifts from lobbyists. But often those rules do not apply to high-profile “celebrity” journalists: those who wield the most influence.

Traditionally, the onus for disclosure of such commercial relationships has been borne by the reporters themselves. And traditionally, those reporters have been hesitant to discuss the fees they have received for speaking engagements and other extracurricular activities. Media reporter Ken Auletta, in his book Backstory, recounts conversations with several leading reporters—Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Brit Hume, Bernard Shaw, Robert Novak, even David Brinkley—about the fees they received in exchange for speaking engagements.

Donaldson, for example, had spoken to an IBM conference and the National Association of Retail Druggists in the months before Auletta interviewed him. He claimed not to remember the specifics of his speeches, refused to discuss how much he received for each appearance, and would not acknowledge any ethical obligation to disclose such payments to his viewers.

But consumers of news have a reasonable expectation of transparency, a right to know of any financial relationship between a reporter and the organization’s he or she covers. If Sam Donaldson received a $10,000 honorarium from the American Chemistry Council nine years ago, and he’s discussing a chemical industry issue on ABC this weekend, he should tell viewers about it.

It’s doubtful whether this kind of disclosure can be regulated—the First Amendment would presumably provide an obstacle to such regulation—but there is a clear ethical obligation to fully disclose any financial relationship, not to mention a pragmatic reason for complete transparency—which is to say that any reporter concerned about his or her credibility should understand the damage that will be done if news of an undisclosed relationship comes to light.

While the responsibility for disclosure in such cases rests with the reporter, I would suggest that public relations professionals have a stake in disclosure. The “outing” of an undisclosed relationship between a reporter and his or her subject will create problems for both parties. The reporter’s credibility will be damaged, but there will also  be questions of whether the subject was attempting to undermine the integrity of the media, or at the very least gain some advantage from the relationship.

For that reason, I believe that public relations people should write a sunlight clause into any financial arrangement with a working journalist, insisting that he or she disclose the relationship or forfeit any fee. That way, no misinterpretation can occur.

The chief objection to this requirement is that it would severely limit the number of speaking engagements for leading journalists, many of whom would feel either embarrassed or inconvenienced by the number of disclaimers they would be required to add to their columns or reveal during their television appearances.

Good. If reporters are giving so many corporate speeches that disclosing them is either embarrassing or excessively time-consuming, they should at least be asking themselves whether they have been compromised.

The third kind of payment to media sources involves the employment of editors, reporters and commentators as spokespeople.

Often, this involves a partnership with a trade magazine that requires a member of the magazine’s editorial staff to be interviewed by other media as part of a publicity campaign. For example, a credit card company might partner with a personal finance magazine on a piece of research, and then ask the editor of the magazine to appear on a morning news show promoting the survey and (perhaps) dropping the credit card company’s name into the conversation.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of relationship, but again the preference should be for more transparency rather than less. Obviously, at the very least, the full extent of the relationship between the reporter and the sponsoring company should be disclosed to any media upon by which the reporter is interviewed.

Since those media are acting as gatekeepers, the obligation for disclosure ends there: neither the magazine editor nor the corporate sponsor can demand that the morning show include a disclosure notice during its broadcast.

One final issue, raised by several senior industry executives after the Armstrong Williams scandal became public, involves the changing definition of media. Just who is a journalist in today’s murky media environment, and who isn’t? Is Williams—a conservative commentator who is expected to opine rather than report—to be held to the same journalistic standard as a network news anchor, with his or her supposed obligation to objectivity? Is the author of a technology weblog to be held to the same standard as a science reporter for The New York Times?

The short answer, to both questions, is yes.

In a society that values free speech, no one needs a license in order to practice the art (or craft) of journalism. A journalist for a credentialed news organization has no legal protections that do not exist for an ordinary citizen, nor should he have. Moreover, a journalist for a credentialed news organization has no legal obligations beyond those of an ordinary citizen. There is no legal requirement for journalists to be objective, fair, or balanced. Nor should there be.

Objectivity, fairness and balance are matters that should be determined by the marketplace. Reporters who routinely violate the accepted standards will lose credibility, their audience and ultimately their usefulness to public relations people who hope to harness the former in order to reach the latter.

What this means to public relations people is that their relationship with any intermediary or spokesperson—reporter, opinion leader, academic, expert or ordinary customer—should be guided by the same ethical (and pragmatic) principles.

If an individual is being paid to use a channel of communication (a newspaper column, magazine article, television appearance, Internet site, or blog) to deliver a specific message, that message should be clearly identified as paid advertising and not disguised in any way as earned editorial comment. (The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, to its credit, recently adopted guidelines against deceptive practices, including the employment of actors to promote specific products in public settings—in bars or clubs, or on the street—without acknowledging that they are employed by the company that makes or sells those products.)

If an individual who has been paid by a corporation is also addressing the public directly, there should be full disclosure. A news anchor received $50,000 to give a speech to pharmaceutical companies: he has an obligation to disclose. A conservative commentator receives government money to provide advice about shaping the Healthy Marriages initiative: she has an obligation to disclose. A political blogger is hired as a consultant by the Democratic Party: he has an obligation to disclose. A celebrity chef is hired as a judge in a company-sponsored cooking contest and then uses the company’s ingredients on his TV show: he has an obligation to disclose.

In every case, the organization is working with the individual in question—the news anchor, the blogger, the celebrity chef—because he or she has either influence or credibility. In every case, the value of that influence or credibility will be diminished (admittedly by varyig degrees) if the public learns that a financial relationship went undisclosed.

Protecting the value, the influence, and the credibility of third parties should be a priority for both those parties and for the public relations profession. They should work together to ensure that there is not even a suggestion of deceit, an appearance of opacity in their working relationships. That’s the ethical thing to do, and the smart thing to do.

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