Paul Holmes 17 Nov 2012 // 10:23AM GMT
In a revelation doubtless destined to shake the world of media and communications to its core, a devastating investigation by the public interest website ProPublica has exposed one of the darkest secrets of the public relations industry: PR firms sometimes approach media organizations with stories favorable to their clients. ProPublica, clearly keenly aware of the bombshell nature of this discovery, devotes more than 1,100 words to informing its readers that Ketchum—the specific example cited to illustrate this shockingly widespread practice—actually did something to earn at least some of the many millions of dollars it is being paid by the government of Russia. The resulting article reveals that Ketchum submitted op-eds written by individuals sympathetic to Russia to media outlets including Huffington Post and CNBC. You can tell this is a major scandal because in the first paragraph, the writer Justin Elliott describes the opinion columns that were published as a result as “seemingly independent.” Doubtless, then, the article will produce evidence that these columns were not, in fact, independent at all. And a couple of paragraphs later, sure enough, there is a quote from the author of one of them: Adrian Pabst, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, who confesses that “his views were his own and that he was not influenced or paid by Ketchum.” Oh, the horror! Oh, the shame! Look… it’s conceivable that you could write a serious article questioning whether media outlets should provide more information to their readers not only about the authors of op-ed articles, but also whether the articles were submitted by a PR firm. (Personally, I’d like to see the PR firm get credit every time a media outlet used a story idea, quote or op-ed that came from someone in our business.) But to present this as if it’s a criticism of the PR firm—while presenting zero evidence that the firm in question did anything unethical or deceptive—is not “public interest journalism,” it’s agitprop. Ketchum appears to have responded with a fairly bland boilerplate: The work in questions was “consistent with Ketchum’s policies and industry standards, we clearly state that we represent the Russian Federation.” Personally, I might have gone with something a little more combative. I might even have indulged in a little light sarcasm. But you probably figured that out already.