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January 19, 2005

Bloggers Are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR

"Maybe this is the way things are done all the time in PR today. It's one of the most plausible explanations we have for the Ketchum contract, the apparent fraudulence of which is roughly parallel to the memos in the Dan Rather case."

(See PressThink, Dec. 22, Keystone Crisis Management at Ketchum. “There it sits,, witlessly pumping out to the Web, 24 hours a day, the cocky evasions of a CEO, for which the firm apologized this week, on orders of that same CEO. So this is world class public relations?”)

In her charming “Mash Note to the Blogosphere,” Arianna Huffington writes: “When bloggers decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They’re the true pit bulls of reporting. The only way to get them off a story is to cut off their heads (and even then you’ll need to pry their jaws open).” Charming, right?

And because blogs are ongoing and daily, indeed sometimes hourly, bloggers will often start with a small story, or a piece of one— a contradictory quote, an unearthed document, a detail that doesn’t add up—that the big outlets would deem too minor. But it’s only minor until, well, it’s not. Big media can’t see the forest for the trees. Until it’s assembled for them by the bloggers.

Maybe that’s the way it should work, and sometimes it does. The pit bulls chomp down, refuse to let go, and the major news media finally figure out there’s a story there. But in today’s New York Times, Stuart Elliott’s advertsing column is a clear case of the opposite: Bloggers behind, Big Journalism and the trade press out in front.

For PR bloggers especially, this was a moment for them to shine and for the most part they did not show up.

Elliott reported again today on the furor in public relations circles caused by the Armstrong Williams corruption case, in which one of the leading PR agencies, Ketchum, which is a big firm (1,100 employees) funneled $240,000 from the Department of Education (DoE) to Williams, the conservative syndicated columnist and television host, who was paid to promote the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). (See his earlier column too.)

The contract between DoE and Ketchum says 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.” In PR that is known as “pay to play,” a practice regarded as unprofessional, unethical, self-defeating— corrupt on its face.

How is it that one of the leading firms in the profession signs a contract with the Federal government guaranteeing that one of the biggest sins in the profession (payola) will go down, and even puts the arrangement in writing? Maybe it’s not John Grisham territory, but there’s enough there to make a person curious.

Bloggers are supposed to be a little more curious than most. They are supposed to apply a second degree of scrutiny as they do “their job” in the new ecosystem of news. When the press pack goes that-a-way they ought to look this-a-way more. And they should be alert to events in the moral life of the people whose world they chronicle.

It isn’t possible for Ketchum to claim ignorance of the rules the way Armstrong Williams did. Nor is it possible for people in the industry to dismiss Ketchum as a bit player or wayward individual. Remember Karen Ryan? That was a Ketchum contract too. Maybe this is the way things are done all the time in PR today. It’s one of the most plausible explanations we have for the Ketchum contract, the apparent fraudulence of which is roughly parallel to the dubious memos in the Dan Rather case. But there we had bloggers who refused to let go.

Julia Hood, editor in chief of PR Week, a trade journal that exploded with Ketchum news this week, wrote on Monday that the Ketchum case “reinforces many of the worst perceptions of the industry and has potential to permanently link the specter of propaganda with the communications profession in the minds of the public.” She added, “This is an extraordinarily dismal situation.”

Dismal, yes—also incredible—but somehow nearly invisible to PR bloggers, who, aside from a few mentions here and there, have neglected this juicy and far-reaching story. (Well, that isn’t quite true, as we learned. See this.) The one exception was Jeremy Pepper’s blog, with three posts that counted. He showed up, along with one blogger who is also a player in the industry.

On the same day the story broke in USA Today, Richard Edelman, head of the largest independent PR firm left (Edelman, with 1,800 employees, 40 offices) denounced, at his weblog, the Ketchum contract, which he called “pay to play.” He said it “takes us back in time to the days of the press agent who would drop off the new record album and $10 to the deejay.”

Edelman said he knew personally Ray Kotcher, CEO, and Dave Drobis, Chairman Emeritus of Ketchum. “I am sure that they would never tolerate this kind of contractual arrangement.” He could see this week’s headlines coming (WP: “Firms Fear Backlash From Williams Case”) and he blogged immediately about it.

Some things are black and white. We need to set a very high standard of disclosure for our business, with total transparency on funding sources and mission. We should also eschew any practice that calls into question the integrity of the information being disseminated. Let’s try to turn this negative for our industry into a positive, by making a long term commitment to the best ethical behavior.

Yeah, but would any of that actually happen? Good story, I say. For you had Edelman out front, challenging Ketchum and the industry to come to grips with what happened. Usually it’s the opposite: people at the top reluctant to challenge their peers or go beyond bromides. Here, perhaps—and this was part of the story that went missing—blogging was having a strange effect on an industry leader.

These were extraordinary events for people in PR, but also fascinating for those outside it who may have wondered: is there an ethical way to practice public relations, or is it strictly spin for hire in that world? PR bloggers know, better than perhaps anyone, why the Ketchum story cuts to the core of public relations in American life. And if they didn’t sense it the day the story broke, there was Edelman—a blogging CEO, what better source is there?—saying it straight out: This is a crisis for all of us, PR people.

Amazingly, Edelman’s timely and candid post—which actually fulfilled the public service promise of CEO blogging—got ignored. (Here’s the Technorati search, showing, as of today, one hit from one blog.) I asked Edelman if he was surprised the post didn’t get picked up by PR bloggers.

“Stunned,” he said. “No one commented on it.” What did he expect? “They should be talking about the serious problems in our industry.”

Ketchum and the Bad Conscience of PR, a dramatic story that is finally unfolding this week, had been overlooked by Big Journalism. Williams himself became the focus of news coverage and debate. But what do we need specialty bloggers for, if they aren’t especially alert to stories in their area? (I hassled this blogger about it, and it worked.) Bloggers help the ecosystem of news when they seize on overlooked facts, use their imagination, or stare at the picture until anomalies appear. And it takes only a little imagination to see the anomalies here. A cell phone rings…

…Wait a minute. Slow down. You’re saying we, the great Ketchum, agency of the year, put in writing that we’re getting Armstrong to book our people as newsworthy guests, and paying him a quarter million to do it? Outright? Like we say that, in the contract? No way. Has to be a mistake. Who told you this?… Really?

We’re getting closer to a John Grisham tale. Or maybe Enron. (Where, you’ll recall, “aggressive” accounting was part of a culture of aggression in the firm at large.) Conversations like the one I just imagined would have happened, for sure, if there were competent, ethical people working at Ketchum. I’m assuming there are plenty of them. So what are they going through right now? (And what do they know?)

This is where we needed PR bloggers to chomp down hard and refuse to let go. Pay-to-play is black and white. So why did Ketchum go to black, ethically speaking, on this contract? (Here’s the contract itself in pdf form, courtesy of USA Today.)

“How can we pretend we’re in a decent business if a reporter is hired?” Edelman told me in a brief interview this morning. “Duty to disclose is basic to a PR person’s responsibility,” he said. “Remember: you are pitching to an independent journalist.”

Edelman knows precisely how the house of PR is built. If the press is not independent of the pitchman, the pitching biz is inherently fraudulent. Nobody wants to work in an industry like that. “This story challenges the fundamentals of who we are and what we do,” he told me. And the PR bloggers aren’t on it like hounds? Something seems wrong there.

Journalist Lisa Stone and I made a consensus list of the top PR bloggers, using links and blog rolls to measure. Quick summary: Steve Rubel: no coverage. Trevor Cook: no coverage. Kevin Dugan: no coverage. PR machine: no coverage. Elizabeth Albrycht: no coverage. Mike Manuel: no coverage. Jim Horton: one post (corrected from my earlier count of zero.) Tom Murphy: three posts, one linking to Edelman. Jeremy Pepper: three posts, asking some of the natural questions. Ben Silverman: two vocal posts. Colin McKay: one strong post. (See Lisa’s post, Ketchum and Bloggers: Who Said What? What Remains?)

Would Ketchum own up? Would the bosses announce a CBS-style truth commission? Would they fudge by claiming it was an advertising sale? Go into denial? How much responsibility would top leadership take? Rogue employee defense? All these things must have been going through people’s minds.

On January 13, six days after news broke and Edelman layed down his very public challenge to counterparts in Ketchum, whom he called by name, there came a bizarrely evasive op-ed by CEO Ray Kotcher, in which the firm accepted that Williams had responsibility. A wowzer to me, but that feeling, “this is their statement?…” was familar from some of CBS’s handiwork. This signaled confusion at the top of the firm. Like when Kotcher announced an internal review of federal contracts and an outside team to look at transparency.

Does that mean the outsider reviewers can, as they did with CBS, look into how Ketchum went to black, ethically? Can they comb through what happened to bring about the contract? Kotcher’s op-ed was hilariously opaque: “Ketchum has begun a thorough review of all existing federal contracts and is retaining an outside firm to conduct a complete process that will surely yield recommendations to improve transparency as it relates to government contracts.”

Remember: this is a firm that is supposed to be expert in crafting public statements (you’d want them in your foxhole when there’s a crisis, right?) And the CEO, in a crisis, is out there making public statements that are dead on arrival. Just as Dan Rather’s statements were dead on arrival when his 60 Minutes story was threatened. What kind of leadership is that at the top of Ketchum? Or does it simply mean that the top of Ketchum was involved in the “black” contract itself?

And on Monday the most incredible answer came back on the question of how much responsibility Ketchum felt it had to prevent the corruption of Armstrong Williams and the publicity disaster for its client. Zero! From PR week:

WASHINGTON: Ketchum bore no responsibility for disclosing columnist and pundit Armstrong Williams’ status as a paid advocate for the Department of Education (DoE), said Lorraine Thelian, senior partner in charge of North American operations for the Omnicom agency.

“[Williams] has said numerous times that he should’ve disclosed and we agree with that,” she said. “We would assume that the commentator pundit/would disclose. That’s an assumption that you make.”

Fascinating. Edelman says: Come on, Ketchum, step up to the plate. Ketchum waits and waits—no bloggers storming the palace with questions, national press focused on Williams and DoE—and emerges with… duty to disclose not ours. Denial, in other words.

Denial that didn’t last, either, as with CBS. Today Ketchum is reeling from the effects of its earlier stonewall. It put out a statement: “We should have encouraged greater disclosure. There was a lapse of judgment in this situation. We regret that this has occurred.” Error? Your boss was just saying there was no error. (See Elliott’s column, Jan. 20)

I asked journalist and author Dan Gillmor if he found Ketchum’s defense credible. At his old weblog, he paid attention to PR where it touched the work of reporting. “It’s abdication,” Gillmor said. “If deliberately enabling—and being the knowing agent of— the unethical behavior of others isn’t inappropriate, what is? But that argument raises a further question: Does Ketchum claim that it expected Williams to disclose these payments? I would be, uh, skeptical of such a claim.”

Me too. Technorati showed, as of my posting, zero commentary from PR bloggers on Kotcher’s stupifying op-ed in PR Week.

A strange silence when you think about how contorted, and damning for Ketchum is their “disclosure was his…” defense. (“We would assume that the commentator would disclose. That’s an assumption that you make.”) This means Ketchum accepts the risk if Williams does not disclose. The longer the arrangement goes on, with Williams keeping silent, the bigger the exposure the client has to a firestorm of news coverage and commentary when the contract is made public. Who would know this better than professionals in PR?

Boom, it happened: Contract disclosed. Terrible publicity for Ketchum’s million dollar client. Along with a flood of new inquiries by news organizations and Congress that will keep the Department very busy. Great public relations, Ketchum!

In a scathing commentary Monday, Paul A. Holmes, author of an industry newsletter, The Holmes Report, showed the absurdity of Ketchum’s initial position. They never expected Williams to disclose. That’s all smoke. Disclosure would have been a disaster for DoE, Williams and No Child Left Behind:

If there was an explicit agreement that Williams would provide favorable editorial coverage, the claim that he was responsible for disclosing the payment is specious. The payment itself was unethical; the failure to disclose a side issue. What would such a disclosure have looked like? “I am now going to discuss the No Child Left Behind initiative. All of my comments on this initiative have been paid for by the Bush administration. Under an agreement with the Department of Education, I am to say nothing but nice things about this initiative.”

Ketchum’s stance was not credible. And indeed it fell apart this week. Dan Gillmor comments:

I would hope to see bloggers of all stripes — but especially those who cover the PR industry — treat this as a topic that needs serious discussion. I would also urge PR bloggers who consider themselves ethical to comment on the ethics of the agency’s behavior, and I’d hope that their comments would be scathing.

Again, I’d like to see major industry figures (as Richard Edelman did) say loudly that what happened here was flat-out unacceptable.

My fear is that the conduct may be more widespread than we know; perhaps many folks are ducking the topic because they live in glass houses of their own. That said, I want to be clear that I believe the PR business has vastly more honorable than dishonorable people.

What is a PR blogger, and what are they supposed to be doing? I can’t say we know the answers to that. It’s hard to tell any individual blogger what to write about, where to link. And I am not offering my criticisms at that level. The answer may simply be: “There are a small number of bloggers covering PR, they all have other lives, other interests. They’re not full time bloggers. Give them a break.”

We can do that. Possibly what we saw with Ketchum is just an under-developed blog sphere, no critical mass yet. But I know that as a part-time reader of PR bloggers—and a friend of some—I was disappointed. Richard Edelman was stunned. Those responses matter.

Still, what a story! For the Harvard conference on blogging, journalism and credibility the light bulb is this: Trust has something to do with rising to the occasion.

“Big media can’t see the forest for the trees,” said Huffington’s dreamy letter. “Until it’s assembled for them by the bloggers.” Well, maybe, sometimes, and for certain stories it works like that. The largely unassembled story of Ketchum and the conscience of PR tells us that an independent blogosphere, in this area, just isn’t there yet. There’s Big Journalism, the trade press, and a missing factor: the independent bloggers, asking what’s wrong with this picture? Maybe they’ll appear.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

See Lisa Stone at PressThink, Ketchum and Bloggers: Who Said What? What Remains?

Stuart Elliot, New York Times, Jan. 20: “The Ketchum public relations agency has reversed course, apologizing for paying a company owned by the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the Bush administration’s educational policies. The agency also promised to change its policies to prevent another such ‘lapse in judgment.’”

Disinfopedia entry on Armstrong Williams.

The Responses Come Back (PR or biz or professional responsibility or political blogger… Got a reaction post? E-mail it to PressThink.)

The blank blog is staring back at you. David Weinberger, on the eve of the blogging conference:

Jay asks me if I think the existence of Richard’s [Edelman’s] blog altered the way he responded. Although I know Richard a little, I obviously can’t speak for him. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in cases like this — if it’s a PR scandal and you head a PR agency, or it’s a Harvard scandal and you work at Harvard — if you have a blog, not addressing the issue is itself a presumptive moral statement. Of course it’s not clear how to take that statement: Maybe you had nothing to say, maybe you’re on a plane, maybe you just don’t feel like it, maybe you’re feeling too confused or too sick at heart. Even so, the blank blog is staring back at you.

Doc Searls: Payola Relations. “Here we have another scandal, and the same kind of split. Read enough of the posts, and you start to see an additional split, between PR bloggers and their trade associations. The same split is happening in many industries, between incumbent organizations on one side and independent practitioners on the other side. Those independent folks operate both within and outside organizations, further complicating the whole thing.”

Ernest Miller: “One thing that PR bloggers and others should note is that, whether or not there was sufficient outrage among PR bloggers, there was virtually no outrage among bloggers in general. The focus of outrage has been on Williams and the DoE/Bush Administration. Part of that is certainly due to politics. Part of that, I think, is that most people don’t expect much in the way of ethics from PR firms.”

Marc Snyder: Jay Rosen versus PR Bloggers. “Here’s my take on it Rosen should have called out our associations, not the bloggers. Here’s why…”

I especially appreciate Mark’s post, which is an example of craft in blogging. This is something the Harvard Big Wig Blogging conference should take up. Excellence in craft is an ethic. Sometimes if you push that, other things fall into place and you don’t need as many codes.

Alice Marshall: “Jay Rosen has set up shop as assignment editor for PR Blogosphere. He is upset that we failed to sufficiently vilify the hapless Ketchum Associates… A blog is simply electronic paper on a network. Other than the laws on libel, invasion of privacy, and copyright, bloggers have no obligations. That is the beauty of blogosphere, it is entirely up to the reader to judge what, if anything, is worth reading.”

Colin McKay: “Why was the PR blogging community so subdued in its reaction? Why didn’t a feeding frenzy of debate and recrimination erupt, as in other parts of the blogosphere, building and tearing down arguments by the minute?”

Elizabeth Albrycht: The Ketchum Affair & PR Bloggers. “Ketchum was wrong and their behavior is a stain on the reputation of PR and makes me absolutely livid. I would guess (hope!) that the vast majority of people who work at Ketchum would agree, and I hope we hear more from them. But I am stunned at the buck-passing response of Ketchum leadership.”

Matthew Podboy: “This situation is a big kick in the gut and affects us all. And the irony— here we are in the business of PR. A firm as large at Ketchum surely has a small army focused on crisis comm and I’m having a hard time understanding the delayed statement that was issued today.”

Mike Manuel: “When did I sign up to become a PR industry watchdog? I didn’t get that memo. And quite frankly, I don’t have the time to police the industry.”

Steve Rubel: “Rosen Blasts PR Bloggers.”

I am square on his MIA list. In my case, I feel like I am free and clear because I blog about the intersection between blogs and PR. Blogs had nothing to do with this episode. I am only blogging it now because Rosen, a journalism professor, is criticizing the PR bloggers. Call me provincial, but I really have nothing to add to this dialogue. I feel fine leaving this to folks who blog on the broader PR industry issues. Does Scoble or Doc Searls comment every time the tech industry is attacked? No. Nor does it mean I need to be the PR industry’s Captain America.

Trevor Cook:

I admit that the Ketchum story hadn’t even registered on my radar until I received Jay Rosen’s email this morning (Australian time). Which is strange because we had a major scandal along these lines a few years ago in Australia. Dubbed the “cash for comment” scandal, it involved payments to powerful radio broadcasters to, allegedly, make favourable on-air remarks about some of Australia’s biggest corporations. The scandal got incredible high-profile publicity and has become an icon in Australian political and media life…

True Talk Blog: “Fact is, bloggers (including Mr. TrueTalk, here) haven’t had much to say about this one.”

Ben Silverman: Ketchum Apologizes, Rosen Attacks. “Most PR bloggers appear to be unwilling to take shots at their peers, or to point out serious problems in the industry that reach the executive levels.” Plus a follow up: PR Bloggers: Ketchum If You Can.

Jeremy Pepper: The Silence on Ketchum is Deafening. “It’s not just the bloggers that have failed public relations - it’s PRSA and its attempt to pin the blame fully on Williams and letting Ketchum off pretty free. Or, the Council of PR Firms flat out defending Ketchum … then losing members for that defense.”

Giovanni Rodriguez: Are PR Bloggers Soft on Ketchum? “Man has a point.”

Tom Murphy: PR Bloggers Go Stand in a Corner. “Meanwhile myself and Shel Holtz are sitting are our desks feeling smug and unloved at the same time. Smug because we both posted stories on the Ketchum snafu and upset because the teacher doesn’t know we’re in his class. So, is it a critical failing of the PR bloggers that they didn’t cover Ketchum? Not critical no.”

David Weinberger, who is doing some consulting for Edelman: A failure of disclosure.

Dave Pell at the blog blog responds: “Maybe all bloggers and their motivations are not created equal. There seems to me to be a pretty big difference between, say, political bloggers (in this age of devisiveness and rage) and other types of bloggers.”

Mark Anderson (aka, “Ben Franklin.”): “The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is their objective, not their scandal. The payola angle actually distracts us from the larger picture in which organized forces are demanding that PR reign unchallenged, in politics and ‘news’ alike.”

Comment left at Richard Edelman’s blog, Jan. 15:

Thank you for your courage. You are the only CEO of a global PR firm that has the guts to address this issue and call for reform.

You know, when I tell people what I do — particularly those in the arts, in academia, in non-profit work — 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 is 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.

So far, I appear to be the only pr firm CEO to have withdrawn from the Council of Public Relations Firms in protest over this “trade group’s” defense of one of its largest and most significant dues paying members. My colleagues and I see this as a defining moment for our firm and we are public with our convictions. There’s plenty of room on my rock if someone wants to join me.

Elliot Sloane
Sloane & Company

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 19, 2005 7:17 PM   Print


Don't bloggers (at least the conservative ones)want the policies to be promoted at all costs and have no criticism? Wouldn't exposure be liberal? Isn't anything OK as long as it's Republican? Conflict of interest? Were that the case they'd all have to go home now. Conflict of interest is a real reporter exposing the corruption that constitutes policy for this bunch.

Posted by: Zig at January 19, 2005 7:53 PM | Permalink

Loyalty shapes our actions; we're much more eager to report on fouls committed by the other team. To the extent that the blogosphere functions for political reporting, it's because it contains different teams.

The PR bloggers, and the PR agencies, are on the same team.
The rest of us are on the other team.

That's an oversimplification of course; in PR Week, from Talking Points Memo Jan. 13:
"Sloane & Company CEO Elliot Sloane withdrew his agency's membership in the Council of PR Firms Wednesday following Council president Kathy Cripps' comments defending Ketchum in a New York Times story.

'The reaction of the Council... disappointed me, because I would expect that the trade organization that represents our industry would be more forceful in talking about guidelines, roles and responsibilities, and ethics,' Sloane said.
By contrast, PRSA president Judith Phair called Ketchum's situation 'a shame, disturbing and harmful.'"

Posted by: Anna at January 19, 2005 8:15 PM | Permalink

Perhaps the silence from the PR bloggers is stunned silence from the first awareness that PR will no longer remain immune from examination of the role it plays in the *gathering* of news. That perhaps reporters rarely report without *help* from PR, that in some instances reporters *can't* report without PR.

As a reader I welcome this examination. This is often the missing piece in the conversation.

Posted by: Henry at January 19, 2005 8:51 PM | Permalink

This shouldn't become a liberal v conservative thing. Of course the politics was conservative here. But the issue for jounalists is not politics, but integrity. No one ever offered me a quarter of a million, but we face little things every day. There are many ethical PR people with whom I deal daily. But there are others who try to buy coverage one way or another. My friends in the industry that I serve are both liberal and conservative, but we are united in trying to uphold the highest standards of reporting.

Posted by: Gary Mintchell at January 19, 2005 9:02 PM | Permalink

Anna hit the nail on the head, I'm afraid. To be a PR blogger means to be blogging about a subject in which avoiding causing offense is the first priority. If we had people blogging about PR who are either anonymous or don't want to work in the biz anymore, I suspect they'd have covered the Williams issue more effectively.

Posted by: Dead Parrot at January 19, 2005 10:27 PM | Permalink

hmmm. it seems to me that you're assuming that all of these PR bloggers want to be PR *journalists*, and that may not be the case. I haven't read any of the weblogs you mention, but it seems entirely plausible to me that their interest--and the purpose of their weblogs--is to promote their firms or to talk about effective PR strategies, not to "cover" the PR beat.

not every blogger wants to be a citizen journalist.

Posted by: rebecca blood at January 19, 2005 11:29 PM | Permalink

Fine. (And hi, Rebecca.) Then we need another kind of PR blogger. But some of them have sounded the "we need to be more self-critical" alarm. Some of them, I was thinking, might be ready to realize they can be leaders. I was trying to point them to an opportunity, to speak up, apply their talents.

The reason I think Ketchum is a great story is what you guys have been saying: the fear of challenging something bald like this.

Rebecca: one thing to underline. I am not saying so and so, this blogger or that one, "should" have blogged about Ketchum. My suggestion is: missed opportunity for those who wanted to up their profile, grab some readers, get Richard Edelman to link to you, be in the conversation, etc. Some of this is Blogging 101. Okay 201.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 19, 2005 11:43 PM | Permalink

"I am not saying so and so, this blogger or that one, 'should' have blogged about [current industry scandal]..."

But Jay, doesn't the same argument hold for newspapers and blogging journalists? Where's the journalist who's blogging the circulation scandals? Where's the journalist who's blogging the ethical Achilles heel(s) of the press?

I've only seen it explicitly stated once by a journalist ("I don't blog about the competition because if I did, they might blog about us") but I'm sure it's not far from their minds.

Posted by: Anna at January 20, 2005 12:08 AM | Permalink

Makes sense, Anna. But how risky is it to agree with industry heavyweight Richard Edelman? Can you be accused of being anti-PR if he already took a position challenging to Ketchum? Or let's say you are a friend of Ketchum's, used to work there, still have friends, a human situation thousands are in... is this a time when you would or would not be speaking up, if you had the firm in mind? Your CEO is issuing DOA statements. The smart career move is to watch it happen and say nothing? Maybe.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 12:19 AM | Permalink

"how risky is it"
I guess it depends on how extensive the corruption is.

"is this a time when you would or would not be speaking up, if you had the firm in mind? Your CEO is issuing DOA statements. The smart career move is to watch it happen and say nothing?"

I suspect that, given that the leaders of the firm are human, they view "having the firm in mind" as a distant second priority to "not criticizing your betters".

(BTW, I do not want to defend my previous "12:08 AM" post - there's something in it that still feels true, but what with the CBS report and all, it looks ludicrous.)

Posted by: Anna at January 20, 2005 12:29 AM | Permalink

I've posted a response at

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 20, 2005 1:12 AM | Permalink


Although I don't make your list of PR bloggers, I am one (Since March 2002) :-)

I agree there hasn't been a huge amount of posting on the Ketchum episode.

However I did raise it on January 12

Also I linked to Richard Edelman's post, perhaps it's not wise purely going to Technorati!

Shel Holtz also covered it:

And there is some comment.

I agree this probably slid past more quietly than the previous Karen Ryan episode, but most people I have talked to, just think this is gross stupidity from Ketchum and they are getting it in the neck from the media far and wide.

So in summary I agree the PR blog community have been lax but not silent.

As for those offering excuses... none from me...


Posted by: Tom Murphy at January 20, 2005 3:24 AM | Permalink

This is a topic I planned to address at next week's blog conference in Seattle on the PR panel, but I must say, you absolutely NAILED the key themes here. Maybe we're at a critical inflection point for the blog industry, and the "Age of Idealism & Romantacism" is coming to a sunset. Perhaps there's historical guidance in the migration from "change the world" to "yikes, we need to make money," which may have inadvertedtly and prematurely tossed out a few good web models. No one disputes that bloggers have a legitimate claim to building a business, but I wonder (out loud) whether the aggressive revenue exploratory on the blog front is creating genuine dissonance (or perhaps a simple desire to sit on the sidelines) regarding the Ketchum issue. It's not as simple as "don't throw stones from glass houses," but I think there's a genuine uncertaintly and confusion about the role of blogs moving forward. We're seeing a proliferation of new ad models on the blog front (some quite controversial) and a rising tide of commentary from bloggers on how to drive revenue via blogs. (The session on this topic at the Stanford BloggerCon conference in November was packed.) Just yesterday a prominent blogger broached the issue about whether bloggers should leverage their "influence" as spokespersons (not unlike celebrity spokespersons). The post was innocent and well-intended, and from a respected blogger I consider part of my daily blog diet, but it shined light on a very difficult, perhaps forboding, theme.

We're struggling with similar issues right now with WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association). Can word of mouth be genuine and authentic of consumers (even bloggers) are paid or incented in any way? On the surface it sounds so damn obvious, but the sub-questions are painfully difficult, and strike at the heart of all that is contradictory and paradoxical about marketing.

This is a critically important debate. Thanks for tackling it head-on!

- Pete Blackshaw, Intelliseek/BlogPulse

Posted by: Pete Blackshaw at January 20, 2005 5:43 AM | Permalink


I posted about this here: Thanks for the nudge.


Posted by: Elizabeth Albrycht at January 20, 2005 6:52 AM | Permalink

Forgive my ignorance on this, but how many MSM outlets reported on Ketchum? Perhaps they did, but nearly every story I've seen about this has trashed the Bush Administration, Armstrong Williams, and NCLB. Ketchum has been conveniently left out of it.

Is it possible that news outlets are also unwilling to bit the PR hand that feeds them?

Posted by: JennyD at January 20, 2005 8:15 AM | Permalink

In the case of Rather, there is a whole institutional machinery paid to criticize the media, and the conversation between CBS and its critics was a complex interplay between them. I'm not just speaking of partisan politicos, but also of people like Fineman and Rosen who have been pulled into the larger conversation driven by partisans. There is no institutional machinery dedicated to policing the PR industry.

There are real ethical issues in both cases, but the existence of a conversation in one case and not the other reveals that outrage, transparency and sunlight as a tool of enlightenment change is no longer enough to satiate our moral hunger as citizens. An overload of information has revealed our society's lack of capacity to effectly sift through it with a systematically oriented value system.

It's interesting that blogs have begun to provide an incentive system to buck the trend towards ignoring moral fights. Rosen and Edelman are bringing this, not to light, but to a conversation. This is happening without a large and heavily financed partisan institutional infrastructure, though it's starting smaller of course.

Exciting stuff.

Posted by: Matt Stoller at January 20, 2005 8:27 AM | Permalink

Jay: I would appreciate a correction. I wrote about the Ketchum affair on Jan. 9 under the title "Ethics, Anyone?"

Jim Horton

Posted by: James Horton at January 20, 2005 8:30 AM | Permalink

Is this the first sign of backlash to the "blog triumphalism" phenomenon?

(and I hate to be snarky, but Rosen's last post was [paraphrase] "Journalism vs Blogging is Over" -- if that is the case, what is this post about?]

The "PR bloggers" may not have been on Ketchum's case, but that doesn't mean that bloggers weren't. You mention Josh Marshall, but most of the prominent progressive bloggers were asking the question "who else is on Kethchum's payroll?"

The term "PR blogger" raises credibility questions --- how do we trust people who make a living doing "spin" to tell us the truth about anything?

This idea that "PR bloggers missed the boat" and journalists got the story assumes that "PR bloggers" wanted to be on the boat in the first place. They don't --- they want this story buried, because of where it could lead. If it explodes in the direction of PR firms, it won't just be about "taxpayers dollars" being funnelled to journalists---it will be about the whole range of underhanded manipulation of public perceptions that Ketchum and everyone else in PR engages in.

Posted by: paul_lukasiak at January 20, 2005 8:38 AM | Permalink

What Matt Stoller said. There's no infrastructure devoted to the kinds of issues raised by Armstrong Williams. Moreover, the PR industry is, by definition, a shady business.

Posted by: praktike at January 20, 2005 8:58 AM | Permalink

James: I corrected the post. Tom: I added you to the list.

Jenny: Ketchum was mentioned but overlooked in the initial wave of coverage. But almost anytime you have an individual bad guy against an institutional one, the news will focus on the individual. Williams to me is just a clown, corrupt and allergic to truth-telling. Kethchum is a big organization that is supposed to have scruples. From a social responsibility perspective theirs is the bigger story.

David Weinberger, who is doing some consulting for Edelman, posted on this today: A failure of disclosure.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 9:10 AM | Permalink

Your search skills could use a little polish. I have written about Ketchum several times, including this incident-

Alice Marshall’s TechnoFlak

CanuckFlack also wrote about it

What about your own silence on a far more serious scandal, the betrayal of Valarie Plame? What are you teaching your students? That their relationship with a source is more important that the defense of the country?

If it is part of the business of journalism to report on wrong doing in high places, how can you justify a silence that protects dangerous criminals?

What if there is another terrorist attack? Do you suppose ordinary people will be unable to make the connection between the collapse of Plame's network of agents and a successful attack on the United States?

The Ketchum/Williams payola case is trivial compared to the dangers of crony journalism.

Posted by: Alice Marshall at January 20, 2005 9:11 AM | Permalink

Rebecca Blood's comment is spot on.

Jay seems to be thinking of "blogger as gadfly". To be an effective gadfly a blogger has to be immune to any personal or professional repercussions.

Increasingly professionals of all stripes have discovered blogging and the potential to raise their professional profile and attract clients. For those so motivated, taking on the "gadfly" role is self-defeating. These bloggers are going to be very sensative to the potential for offending a past, current or future client or business partner.

There is nothing wrong with operating a blog for the purpose of promotion but those who do are the last ones willing to take risks such as taking on a major PR firm.

Posted by: Robert Cox at January 20, 2005 9:37 AM | Permalink

First up, apologies to Alice and Jim for ommitting them from my earlier comment.

I think we can safely say "PR bloggers" if such a group exists, did not ignore this issue - though it may not have been their number one priority.

All the "PR Blogs" that covered it, were very up front on the fact that what Ketchum did was wrong and unethical.

In fairness to the "PR Blog" community, regardless of previous comments on this post, they do not ignore malpractice by their peers, in fact they regularly highlight it.

As usual in these circumstances all the old stereotypes of spin and burying news come out to play, for example how about Mr. Lukasiak's insightful comments ...

"This idea that "PR bloggers missed the boat" and journalists got the story assumes that "PR bloggers" wanted to be on the boat in the first place. They don't --- they want this story buried, because of where it could will be about the whole range of underhanded manipulation of public perceptions that Ketchum and everyone else in PR engages in."

Sorry but your opinion of PR has no basis in reality for 99% of PR people. Sure there are a small number of "PR" people who indulge in widespread spin and manipulation but they are a tiny, unwanted minority. I'm sorry to burst your conspiracy bubble but the vast majority of us only go into garages to collect our car, don't go partying all night and work very very hard to help our clients communicate with their audience(s) which is often the media and often not the media.

Please let's keep the reality switch on.


Posted by: Tom Murphy at January 20, 2005 9:44 AM | Permalink

In addition to the post on my blog that Tom Murphy referenced, Neville Hobson and I covered this issue in our PR-focused podcast as well (


Posted by: Shel Holtz at January 20, 2005 9:54 AM | Permalink

I've posted my position on January 13th.

(In Spanish)

Posted by: Octavio Isaac Rojas Orduña at January 20, 2005 9:56 AM | Permalink

Part of what we are running into in this story is that PR firms are at least as critical a filter of what passes for public discourse as the news media or the blogosphere. Marketing and public relations are forms of opinion and news management, of political and public engineering, varieties of sophism for the information age.

Demanding that the press stop "creating" news by challenging talking points or editing and contextualizing press releases is demanding that the news BECOME public relations and only public relations.

continued below:
Poor Richard's Almanac--Mark Anderson

Never Mind the Payola: The Scandal of the Armstrong Williams Story is that PR as Fake News is the Right-Wing Definition of Democracy

Posted by: Ben Franklin/Mark Anderson at January 20, 2005 10:03 AM | Permalink

Oh, Steve Crescenzo at Ragan Communications is another communication-focused blogger who commented on this in his blog, "Corporate Hallucinations."


Posted by: Shel Holtz at January 20, 2005 10:18 AM | Permalink

What interests me is the activities and procedures of the "99% of PR people". I'm trying to understand the role they have in the gathering of news on the local, national and international levels.

What percentage of stories that we read have their origin in a press release?

Is it true that PR people are encouraged to submit releases to media in the "style" of the publication pitched so that the release itself comprises the bulk of the reporters story? Is it true that PR releases sometimes appear as a news story virtually unchanged? How can I tell when the themes behind what I've read are the reporters or when they belong to the PR professional?

I ask these questions as a reader interested in the the conversation taking place about ethics, transparency, and credibility in journalism.

And I rarely encounter any mention of PR in the discussion.

Posted by: Henry at January 20, 2005 10:45 AM | Permalink

Lisa Stone at PressThink, Ketchum and Bloggers: Who Said What? What Remains?.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 12:08 PM | Permalink

I'm amazed that anyone would give this firm their money. They can't even handle their own communications, let alone a client's. Today, Ketchum is in the news because it issued an apology, said by Stuart Elliot to be the work of CEO Ray Kotcher, backing away from a previous statement that the responsibility to disclose was not theirs.

If you go to Ketchum's home page right now, you cannot find anything about the new statement. It isn't there under Press Releases, even though it was a press release. And the home page contains a link to the hilarious, dead-on-arrival, stonewalling op-ed their CEO, Ray Kotcher, wrote on Jan. 13, the very statement that the firm reversed yesterday. But in what passes for crisis management at Keystone Ketchum, the link is busted. (It worked yesterday.)

Meanwhile, under "latest news," Ketchum (which is in the news) has this: "Ketchum to Host Panel on 'What Women Want: Connecting With the New Technology Consumer.'" The panel was Dec. 15th.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 12:32 PM | Permalink

Jay: At the risk of being self-serving, may I point out that I wrote several entries on the Williams debacle , and I attacked the PR defense before the PRSA made a statement. Why didn't I do more? I had to turn my attention to my day job. But it's not true that bloggers ignored the story -- at least I didn't. Here is my coverage:

Posted by: Kim Pearson at January 20, 2005 12:34 PM | Permalink

My comments are on my blog, here



Posted by: Marc Snyder at January 20, 2005 12:44 PM | Permalink

It appears that the writers of this article did almost no research on what they were writing about. From the comments I see here there were a ton of PR bloggers who wrote on just this subject. The upshot is that the writers are then quoted in the MSM as if no bloggers at all wrote on the subject which is clearly not the case. However, that will not stop the MSM from writing as if it were and they did. What kind of news reporting is this? First the writers lie about the story, then the MSM repeats the lie without noting any correction and now we have a whole industry of PR bloggers tainted in the eyes of the public.

What else did the authors not do? Do you see where any non-PR bloggers wrote about the story? In fact almost without exception the non-PR bloggers were all over this subject and you would never know it from the authors. Inconvenient facts or more missed stories.

This is a hack job that should never have been written at all and now that the genie is out of the bottle how do the authors propose to correct the situation?

Posted by: dick at January 20, 2005 12:47 PM | Permalink

There was no shortage, I repeat, no shortage of commentary, analysis, and criticism surrounding this story in the blogsphere. To narrow the scope of this item to the realm of "PR-Bloggers" is a case of taking a very small subset of a larger realm and pumping up the volume.

Rosen's a valuable and insightful voice, but this is a case of running off at the keyboard.

Posted by: Van der Leun at January 20, 2005 1:00 PM | Permalink

The blogosphere is at enmity with the PR industry. The role of PR is the manufacture of consent. The role of the blogosphere is the deconstruction of such consent, in the hope, I think, of trying to establish a more universal consent. Trying to find a place along the line that separates the two is impossible.

Hence, the term PR blogger is an oxymoron.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at January 20, 2005 1:11 PM | Permalink

Van der Leum: Could be right. I am often accused of taking small things and attributing more significance to them than they deserve.

Terry: I think your view, "no such thing as a PR blogger" is a strong one too. I'm not sure, myself, what a PR blogger is.

Also, Van der Leun: I would be interested in the deluge of commentary you cited, how much of it was framed around Ketchum and its actions, reactions. In the flood of analysis, was there much attention to what industry heavyweight Edelman was doing at his blog? Did someone have a eagle eye on it? And was the professional agony people were undergoing at that firm a focus of much blogging, would you say? Check your flood and get back to me.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 1:16 PM | Permalink

PR simply involves adopting a professional approach to communications. That means good writing. It means engaging with audiences by understanding their issues and concerns and responding by talking about the points they're interested in, not just carrying on some egotistical corporate monologue. Its about focus, clarity, simplicity. Its about telling complex jargon loaded stories into ones that the general layperson can understand. Its about providing journalists and others with information in formats that they find useful.
All of this is good, sensible and useful stuff. The work of PR for most of us is a long way from the lurid images of dusty deceptions and clever spin that are conjured by some of the comments in this discussion. PR for most of us is just hard work. Its exciting work because so much of human life, the interesting stuff anyway, is communications.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 20, 2005 1:18 PM | Permalink

Hey Trevor... if you check in, go look at Ketchum's website right now. Do you see "professional" public relations going on there right now?

Also, I am not trying to establish that "no one mentioned" Ketchum and its problems, or the ethics rules. I am willing to grant you: the PR bloggers mentioned it. But when I say missing, I mean--in part--what Colin McKay, Canuck Flak, means: "Why was the PR blogging community so subdued in its reaction? Why didn't a feeding frenzy of debate and recrimination erupt, as in other parts of the blogosphere, building and tearing down arguments by the minute?"

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 1:35 PM | Permalink

There is one group that does provide a critical voice on the PR industry, PR Watch. You link to the disinfopedia (which is one of their projects) entry on Williams.

They have a few related entries in their Spin of the Day including this one the day the story broke. Also, The Other Armstrong Williams Scandal, a blog post.

Posted by: Steven Rhodes at January 20, 2005 1:37 PM | Permalink

Sorry, the links work in this one.

There is one group that does provide a critical voice on the PR industry, PR Watch. You link to the disinfopedia (which is one of their projects) entry on Williams.

They have a few related entries in their Spin of the Day including this one the day the story broke. Also, The Other Armstrong Williams Scandal, a blog post.

Posted by: Steven Rhodes at January 20, 2005 1:39 PM | Permalink

Thanks so much for the coverage today! Really appreciate it. Glad the old media can win one every once in a while ; ) All best, Stuart Elliott

Posted by: Stuart Elliott at January 20, 2005 2:06 PM | Permalink

Sorry, Zig, but good PR is good PR and bad PR is bad PR. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to suggesting that Rathergate is typical of all journalism: Reporting is reporting and therefore subject to bias and shoddiness. It's just not true.

"Spin" as I think you're defining it is the product of bad PR. (Good spin simply means that you're positioning the story to the audience -- employees need a different spin from the consumer media who require a different spin from the trade media who have different interests than the investment community. But it never plays fast and loose with truth.)


Posted by: Shel Holtz at January 20, 2005 3:31 PM | Permalink

"is there an ethical way to practice public relations"

Nice snide little dig at the PR field.

Doesn't NYU "practice PR"? I know the The New York Times and Salon both do. How about the publisher of your book?

Most PR practitioners engage in promoting products and services - simply one more element of the sales/marketing process.

Posted by: Dave H at January 20, 2005 3:45 PM | Permalink

Jay - you missed at least 8 PR bloggers' posts (and we're a relatively small community, none of us professional bloggers we all do other things)they all seem to have blogged negatively.

Why do we have to go into a frenzy? We can blog about what we like, a lot blogged about Ketchum. As I suggested in my post yesterday this crap has been going down for a long time in the PR industry.

Personally, I think a lot of the fault lies with the people who create the demand for shonky practices.

In nearly a decade in PR I've never suggested unethical PR practices but I've had several companies suggest shonky stuff to me especially astro-turfing which seems to be a fave.

What was the US Government thinking?

Why hasn't some senior govt official been cut-down for this yet?

If the US Government, no less, is willing to engage in this stuff - well, I think its well beyond being just a question of PR ethics frankly.

I believe that we should have conspiracy laws to cover these practices and that both the agency and the client should be culpable for anything that is clearly fraudulent.

There is a case before the Australian corporate regulator at the moment which might test the extent to which an agency is legally responsible for making misleading statements (in a media release) at the direction of a client. That will be interesting.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 20, 2005 6:01 PM | Permalink

Trevor: I don't get it. Concerned that some may have been left out of our search, Lisa Stone is compling a more complete record here. This is an attempt to be accurate. And that you call a frenzy? Just what do you regard as frenzied here? I think the comments in the "After" section of this post show a calm, fairly intelligent debate underway. Anyway, that's how I blog: I give you the debate after. Is there something unfair about that?

What was the U.S. government thinking when it made this contract is a great question, and ought to be investigated.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 7:04 PM | Permalink

And something else for you to contemplate, PR professionals, as well as business journalists, as well as freelancers, and bloggers.

You think this is the way things have traditionally operated in Public Relations? From a comment left at Richard Edelman's blog, Jan. 15.

Thank you for your courage. You are the only CEO of a global PR firm that has the guts to address this issue and call for reform. You know, when I tell people what I do -- particularly those in the arts, in academia, in non-profit work -- 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 is 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.

So far, I appear to be the only pr firm CEO to have withdrawn from the Council of Public Relations Firms in protest over this "trade group's" defense of one of its largest and most significant dues paying members. My colleagues and I see this as a defining moment for our firm and we are public with our convictions. There's plenty of room on my rock if someone wants to join me.

Elliot Sloane
Sloane & Company

I think there was a story missed about the effects of a.) blogging and b.) more general pressure toward "transparency" on people like Sloane and Edelman, which caused them to be more public--and clearer--then they might have been in an earlier era of public communication. Which meant Ketchum could not count as much on a "go along, get along" climate in the biz or political arena. But it didn't know this. Why? Because Ray Kotcher, CEO, didn't read or take in, if he read, Edelman's weblog post on Jan. 7, signaling in public what the "new" climate was like. There's a blogging story here. Are you all missing it?

Edelman didn't have that signaling system before: the blog. Did it make a difference in his response to Ketchum's crisis?

I wonder what David Weinberger would say. Think I will ask him.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 20, 2005 8:08 PM | Permalink

Perhaps my site is too small and too new to register in the blogosphere, but I did have three posts on Ketchum between January 15 - 18, starting with a look at previous government efforts on propaganda and moving to a criticism of Kotcher's PR Week article. See:

Posted by: Chris Raphael at January 20, 2005 8:28 PM | Permalink

Jay, in response to your comment two up from this one: Yup, sure seems to me that the blogosphere must have made a difference in how Richard Edelman responded. I feel confident that the Edelman would have been just as outraged by Ketchum's sliminess before Edelman had a blog. But going public with his outrage would have required getting someone else to publish it.

But I don't think blogs in cases like this are simply places one can publish one's moral response. Rather, the presence of the blog requires one to make a public response. A failure to blog is itself a type of statement...which was at the heart of your post, Jay.

Blogs call forth moral presence.

Posted by: David Weinberger at January 20, 2005 8:40 PM | Permalink

Jay -- I agree that the press did get ahead on the Williams story, most notably with the NYTimes story today about Ketchum finally apologizing and the story yesterday about the ethical crisis, though it did take the mainstream press at least a week to realize the story was also one about Ketchum.

I would perhaps argue that the press was slow on this, and bloggers nearly absent, because the PR industry itself is not one that has been regularly scrutinized by outside press, at least not in the same fashion the press has chomped down on other industries (pharmaceuticals, petroleum, financial services)....

Posted by: Chris Raphael at January 20, 2005 8:46 PM | Permalink

Sorry but your opinion of PR has no basis in reality for 99% of PR people. Sure there are a small number of "PR" people who indulge in widespread spin and manipulation but they are a tiny, unwanted minority. I'm sorry to burst your conspiracy bubble but the vast majority of us only go into garages to collect our car, don't go partying all night and work very very hard to help our clients communicate with their audience(s) which is often the media and often not the media.

although dizziness makes it difficult to type after so much spin, I'll try my best...

PR is the process of manipulation of perception. Its about damage control and image enhancement. Its tell the public that the sow's ear you are selling is really a silk purse -- or even better than a silk purse ("Its durable! Its washable! You can't do that with a silk purse!")

In essence, you are in the business of dishonesty, because you don't tell the whole truth.

And I would suggest that those who, like yourself, do not acknowledge the essential dishonesty of your profession are the ones most likely to step over whatever passes for an ethical line in the PR business.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at January 20, 2005 8:50 PM | Permalink

Hmmmmm ...:

Doc Searls writes:

Blogging isn't cable TV. We don't have to fill otherwise empty pipes with "content," and we don't have to hold eyeballs still while our customers stab them with advertising messages. Most of all, we don't have to join the ranks of the professionally opinionated, or the choirs of voices raised in righteous rage against political enemies.

We're free-range writers. If you don't like what we say or don't say, there are plenty of other potential sources of what you want...

Ahem ...:
I was trying to say that while I can, did, and perhaps will again express my outrage at CBS, I reserve the right to think it ever so slightly outrageous that you do ask me: where is your statement of outrage, Jay, as if I have some obligation to declare myself by a certain time, or to condem Rather for this because I hit someone else for that.
If I were Colin Powell, then it seems to me you have a point. First time outrage expression for a secretary of state is news. I represent no one but my self and my writerly obsessions. My "positions" on things, while they exist, I often choose to de-emphasize in my writing. (Repeated here)

Posted by: Sisyphus at January 20, 2005 10:39 PM | Permalink

I was there Jan 7th. Granted, the facts were still surfacing (and I suspect they will continue to, as I believe it's BigPR's model, as much as--maybe more than--the specific agency caught here, that is flawed). But I did have a say -- thx.

Posted by: Jeneane at January 20, 2005 10:54 PM | Permalink


Thank you for writing. I just posted a correction here under "More After Matter". Here's an excerpt:

"No blog is too small. It's the quality of the writing that counts. I need to issue a correction: Mediopolis should have been on the list of notable PR blogger contributors with Edelman, Pepper, Canuckflack, Technoflak et al. I take responsibility for any and all posts made before 11:59 p.m. PST on Jan. 19 that I missed in reporting this round-up. I welcome the corrections--please keep them coming!"

Posted by: Lisa Stone at January 21, 2005 12:40 AM | Permalink


Thanks, you're on the list too.

Posted by: Lisa Stone at January 21, 2005 12:52 AM | Permalink

Jay -

You've obviously struck a nerve among this relatively small, yet growing, community. And that's a good thing. Perhaps you knew your comments would spark outrage and get those of us who are mired in other activities back to discussing the current state of our industry and perhaps most importantly - its credibility, which has alway been tenuous at best.

As always, it takes controversial topics to get people interested.

Further, has this event and the comment, or lack of comment on it, not demonstrated the current state of "participatory journalism"? Thesis anyone?

As far as comments on Ketchum, check out my associate, Eric Schwartzman's Jan. 17th post, entitled, "Mainstream Media and Ketchum PR Sliding Down Credibility Scale" and his latest post from today on Ketchum's apology "Ketchum Apologizes Through News Media".

Posted by: Chris Bechtel at January 21, 2005 12:54 AM | Permalink

Chris Bechtel:

Thanks. I've added Eric Schwartzman's post here.

Posted by: Lisa Stone at January 21, 2005 1:08 AM | Permalink

Not much left to say that hasn't been said already. Don't want to pile on.

May I offer these observations that we might agree on:

(a) you missed many blogs (mine had a bit about it on Jan. 9th - related to yet another controversy). I've been preparing my comments - up now. I've been waiting and editing for many reasons, but was going to blog because I have my students commenting about it, starting today. And that was planned well before your post here.

(b) your research efforts - using Technorati solely - were flawed. Visit the Blogdigger Headlines from PR Weblogs and Google next time,

(c) you might not have posted the same article had you done significant research. But, that is the upside of blogs/CMS thanks to quick 'updates' and 'comments' to square the whole story.

(d) sufficiently investigating PR blogs would show that they quite frequently, if not a majority of the time, are used to point out examples of poor practice, failed tactics and ideas about how to improve the profession's practice, as well as image.

(e) PR bloggers are often watch dogs and do practice the promotion of 'good practices'

(f) The good thing is that having a prominent media critic raise the question, however flawed, has spurred on further discussion. Just a shame that for some, now, it is your tactics taking center stage and not the failed disclosure and absent transparency in PR.

Always love to read your blog. Never ceases to be a learning experience. Thank you.

Posted by: Robert at January 21, 2005 1:57 AM | Permalink

As a business communicator in Europe, I'm not a so-called PR blogger although I do blog about PR issues. I posted commentary on my blog early yesterday, for the first time, in response to your post. I was aware of the story as I'd read Richard Edelman's post earlier this month. But as I mentioned in my post, it seemed to me to be a particular US issue. None of the US newspapers that I read had reported on it. Yet another case of ethics in US business taking a nose dive, I thought.

A wholly wrong view, actually. This is a huge issue, one that affects the communication profession as a whole, not only PR. You've done a service by raising it (note, though, that I say in my commentary that you were 'somewhat disingenuous' with your post, but see that in context).

What surprises and disappoints me is the absolute lack of meaningful comment from any of the professional associations. The PRSA or IABC, for instance (I don't count as 'meaningful' any statement made so far by the PRSA). Organizations like these are the "ethical glue" that binds the profession together (yes, a bit like The Force) to provide a framework for how people in the profession behave professionally. As with any grouping of people, there will be bad apples, in which case it is one of the profession's responsibilities to weed them out.

I've already been accused of being naive with such an opinion (which is fine: I blog, so I have a thick skin), but if our professional associations don't take a clear stand on behaviours that run counter to the codes of ethics those associations stand by, why should anyone else? Indeed, what's the point of ethics codes if some don't abide by them - and then get away with it. Worse, they're clearly seen as getting away with it.

I've been a member of IABC for over 15 years. I will continue to be a member and a highly committed one at that. Each year when I renew my membership, I have to re-affirm my commitment to IABC's code of ethics - which, in my view, is a benchmark standard. I actually do read it each time. (Which also makes me wonder - is anyone at Ketchum an IABC member? I haven't checked but, if so, how does what the people concerned did gel with IABC's code?)

What I want to see, and very soon, is a clear stand by my professional association on this ethical issue.

Incidentally, notwithstanding criticims on the quality of Technorati, a Technorati search just now on the key phrase "ketchum jay rosen" turned up links to 52 posts about this whole sorry affair. So it's clearly on the blogosphere radar now, at least. A Google search on the same key words turns up over 960 links, although doubtless many of those aren't relevant (I haven't checked).

Posted by: Neville Hobson at January 21, 2005 5:39 AM | Permalink

Neville, a fundamental problem here is that most of the people in this discussion from outside the PR profession (see comments above including Doc Searles and people of his ilk) start from the premise that all PR is dishonest and that PR is not even a legitimate activity.

This nihilist premise precludes serious dialogue about how to ensure higher ethical standards in PR because their ideological constructs do not allow them to countenance the idea that there could be anything like an ethical PR profession.

In fact, I think the prospect of ethical and valuable PR activity would seriously undermine the conspiratorial world view they revel in.

Personally, this whole episode has re-inforced with me the maxim about being careful of people who too earnestly profess their own honesty.

And beyond that I'm wondering whether cluetrain is a serious attempt to improve the role of communications in our society or just a self-congratulatory piece of fine sounding words, with no hope of becoming a lived reality beyond a small sliver of society.

In the real world, morality and ethics are not black and white, the world is not divided between good guys and bad guys much less good professions and bad professions.

There are ethical and unethical journalists, doctors, lawyers, pr people etc

Moreover, we are none of us perfect and behaving ethically is in truth (read any serious writer on the subject) a daily challenge which demands of us decisions made in conditions of partial knowledge and considerable ambiguity.

There are some good issues in Rosen's post - though his premise about PR bloggers ignoring Ketchum has been punctured - but there's not chance of a serious debate about addressing them in these non-PR blogs.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 21, 2005 6:17 AM | Permalink

I'll say this until I'm blue in the face - journalists need to get off their high horses about PR and clean out their own closets first.

Unethical PR practices would not exist were it not for unethical (or just merely incompetent) journalists. There would be no money in it. The smart unethical PR practitioners would probably go into law or politics, and the lesser-able ones would go back to party and event planning.

One surefire way to ensure higher ethical standards in PR would be for journalists to:

a) do their own legwork

b) not accept bribes (yes, a $105 sushi lunch is a bribe)

c) not reflexively devote favorable coverage to advertisers (see above)

d) leave personal bias out of reporting

Posted by: Dave H at January 21, 2005 7:46 AM | Permalink

Trevor, I couldn't agree with you more on your points about the real world. As I said, every profession has its bad apples. And like you, I am a little suspicious when I hear anyone earnestly professing his or her own honesty (although I've not seen anyone doing that, here or elsewhere). I could say 'politicians' in this regard, but that's a bit of an old joke.

And you're right about the daily challenges each of us faces. If you really study IABC's code of ethics, for example, how many people - me included - could truthfully say that they uphold every single one of these, day in and day out?

So maybe my wish for my professional association to take a clear stand on this ethical issue really is naive, wishful and Utopian thinking. So maybe I should just get on with it and not be concerened at all by any of this. Or go and do something else.

But I'm not going to do either of those things. I do believe very strongly that a body that represents the profession, and which is a guardian of acceptable behaviour, must take a clear and unambiguous stand on an issue such as this.

Richard Edelman did. Perhaps his is the voice of the profession, not the associations'.

Posted by: Neville Hobson at January 21, 2005 7:49 AM | Permalink

Neville, I'm sceptical about associations because I think the Australian version (PRIA) is little more than a tea club dedicated to the self-promotion of its members.

I think Edelman's personal intervention is much more fruitful and I hope other CEOs of other majors follow suit.

Yet, the problem will never be solved its an ongoing battle - that's life.

My criticism is not of your efforts but of non-PR people need to decide whether they think PR is evil or whether they think it can be made better. Those positions cannot be held simultaneously by a rational person.

If you haven't noticed anyone too eagerly professing their own honesty, go and read Doc Searles' post on this issue. The underlying implication is the moral superiority of non-PRs (himself included) over PR people.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 21, 2005 2:26 PM | Permalink

check out "sorry about that propaganda" on transcendental floss...

Posted by: michael miller at January 21, 2005 10:39 PM | Permalink

While I agree with the central thrust of your post, Jay, there are caveats worthy of note:

1) When I see several heavily trafficked blogs have commented on a story with sentiments similar to my own, I don't feel it necessary to weigh in to the redundasphere just to prove my morality. Sometimes I pile on, sometimes I don't and the latter choices reflect nothing about my ethics, imo.

2) Both Matt Stoller and Praktike raised the point that any assumption that PR is an ethical business may itself be flawed, particularly those hiring out to politicians. Since Hill & Knowlton sold the first Gulf War, I've believed their only duty was to sell whatever customers want them to sell, not to decide morality. Selling war on false stories is about immoral as it gets, so I've thought ever since that effectiveness of the sell was the only judgment left to us citizens.

I'm not being facetious, either. The more I've read, the more it seems correct. After all, the whole PR industry began for the purpose of selling wars, wasn't it? So if that's the case, isn't the Armstrong Williams payoff relatively of lesser consequence?

It's a black eye for journalism, but for the PR industry, I thought it was the norm. Does anyone in the PR world dispute this?

Posted by: Kevin Hayden at January 22, 2005 6:34 PM | Permalink

They do, yes.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 22, 2005 8:11 PM | Permalink

We certainly do.

Its a bizarre syllogism

a) PR sells things

b) Some of the things some PR people sell are immoral

c) Therefore, PR is immoral.

Of course, the real story is:

a) Selling (products, services, policies, ideas) is immoral

b) PR is part of the selling process

c) Therefore, PR is immoral

At least in that format the logic works. And its more honest.

You could also argue

a) Information can only be trusted if it comes from an independent source

b) PR is not independent

c) Therefore, information from PR cannot be trusted

This works too.

I expect any journalist I pitch to will check the facts (surely?) and that there are many sources of information (esp. in an Internet age), so I don't have a monopoly

After all, PR people are putting their clients' view, we do not aspire to independence.

The first proposition in the last sequence however raises many questions itself.

What is 'independence' (or, objectivity) and who can claim it? After all, we're all linked to communities, causes and ideologies etc. The idea of a disembodied liberal individual is a myth,which has long since been laid to rest.

Secondly, even if you adhere to the notion of independence why is it the only basis for 'trust'?

I'm a 'trust and verify' person myself. Even if I respect the source, I still want to see the evidence myself, I still want to check the logic that underpins the arguments.

So, as a PR person if I give you a pitch document (media releases etc.) which contains an argument that you can examine yourself and information you can verify and so on. And I don't pretend I'm doing anything other than openly pressing my client's case. What's the problem?

Why do clients use PR agents? Because we are, or should be, very good at constructing and presenting those arguments and that information.

Further, everyone uses PR and PR professionals.

Adam Curry and Dave Winer have been very effective in using the media to promote podcasting. They, especially Adam, have used some classic PR techniques.

Aid organisations use PR. They did so very effectively during the recent Tsunami response.

Left-wing causes use publicists.

Universities use PR, I assume NYU is among them.

Book publishers use PR. I expect O'Reilly used PR to promote Dan Gillmor's book.

Anytime anyone moves past the build a mouse trap view of the world (doesn't work) and starts to promote their idea or service they have entered the world of PR.

Democratic societies are competitions, anyone who succeeds, or wants to succeed, in those competitions uses PR techniques.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 22, 2005 10:56 PM | Permalink

Why has Rosen refused to address whether he has ever availed himself of NYU's PR dept? Or what he thinks of NY Times, Salon and his book publisher's PR efforts?

PR pros are somewhat like lawyers, in that everyone likes to condemn them (until they need them)

Posted by: Dave H at January 24, 2005 3:08 PM | Permalink

Yes Dave, exactly.

Posted by: Trevor Cook at January 24, 2005 6:03 PM | Permalink

Trevor, Absolutely wonderful.

Posted by: Robert French at January 24, 2005 9:17 PM | Permalink

Rosen's whole premise is flimsy, actually. He tries to claim that this situation is the equivalent to the Dan Rather scandal at CBS. Then he howls about how the PR industry is "failing" this opportunity to "reform" itself.

This is wrong and here is why.

CBS and Ketchum are both the "big time" top organizations in their fields. That is where the similarities end.

You see, the vast majority (80%, at least) of the PR industry is focused on promoting consumer products and services. Propaganda, or "Political Communications" is a very small slice of the pie. Most agencies don't even do that. Therefore, PR pros (and the bloggers that follow them) are interested mainly in consumerism, not politics.

This small discipline of PR, in comparison to the PR industry, is equal to maybe a CBS affiliate in a small market like Boise or Columbia, SC. as compared to the TV news community.

CBS/Rathergate, on the other hand - this was Dan Rather and 60 Minutes - the heart and soul of the TV news business.

Posted by: Dave H at January 25, 2005 8:36 AM | Permalink

From the Intro