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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