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January 20, 2005

Ketchum and Bloggers: Who Said What? What Remains? Lisa Stone Reports.

I expected more response. First, because this was the second time Ketchum was implicated in the possible misuse of taxpayer dollars for propaganda. Second, because USA Today tossed the blogosphere a bone by posting a PDF file of Ketchum's contract. Third, because pushing the PR industry is necessary work.

(Background is Jay Rosen’s, Bloggers Are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR.)

by Lisa Stone

When the blogosphere exploded in response to Greg Toppo’s report that the U.S. Dept. of Education hired commentator Armstrong Williams to promote Bush administration policy, some readers may have gotten the impression that the DOE had signed a contract with Williams.


The DOE did sign a contract, but it wasn’t with Williams. According to documents Toppo obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—and posted on—the DOE signed a $1 million contract with the Washington D.C. office of Ketchum. Ketchum is a firm owned by $8.6 billion media services conglomerate Omnicon.

Ketchum then hired Williams, helped him produce ad spots, oversaw his commentary and TV performance, reported regularly back to the DOE, and wrote Williams his checks for a total of $240,000.

When Toppo’s story broke Jan. 7, I expected PR bloggers to howl in outrage at this abuse of their professional ethos. After all, it didn’t take black journalists long to call Williams on the carpet—the leadership of the National Association of Black Journalists called for an across-the-board media boycott of his work in a scathing public announcement:

“I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs,” said NABJ Vice President-Print Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder. “I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it.”

Update: Please see After Matter: Notes, reactions and links at the bottom of this post for comments posted beginning 1.20.05 and later by bloggers Elizabeth Albrycht, Steve Rubel, Trevor Cook, Kevin Dugan, Mike Manuel and others.

Here is a sampling of commentary from PR bloggers who did post about Ketchum’s culpability:

Richard Edelman. (Edelman runs the nation’s largest independent PR firm.) Blog name: Speak Up

January 15: “We have a responsibility to tell the truth, to foster dialogue and to reveal funding sources. We cannot tolerate any arrangement that envisages payment for placement. To do otherwise completely undermines the essence of our position as honest advocate and eliminates the separation of church and state for the media. Why bother reading the editorial copy if it is purchased in the same way as the advertising?” More here. Additional posts: here.

Jeremy Pepper (Independent PR firm owner in Scottsdale, AZ.) Blog name: POP! Public Relations.

January 12: “PRSA and Council for PR Firms take no stance. With the opportunity to take a stand, and put out a strong statment on the Armstrong Williams issue, and PR’s future, both PRSA and Council for PR Firms decided that all the blame lay at the feet of … Armstrong Williams….Neither said anything about Ketchum, but excused Ketchum. This isn’t the type of stance either association should take, but rather forward looking viewpoints and solutions.” More here. Additional posts: here, here and here.

Ben Silverman. (Independent journalist/columnist/publisher in PR.) Blog name: PR Fuel.

January 12: “With the media’s credibility nearing an all-time low, the credibility of the PR industry is not far behind. Those of us on the inside understand the delicate balance of the PR-media relationship, but the vast majority of the population sees PR and media operating in tandem, not independently. Firms like Ketchum, and quasi-journalists like Armstrong Williams, do nothing but help support the latter view. Sooner or later, the other shoe will drop, and both the media and the PR industry will have to answer for their sins. The digital printing press will see to that, even if someone in the mainstream media is unwilling to do so.” More here. Additional posts: here, here and here.

Colin McKay. (Based in Ottawa, Canada.) Blog: Canuckflack

January 12: “Shouldn’t the PR firm be held somewhat accountable for chasing a contract that blatantly violates journalistic norms and the PRSA code of ethics? If you get caught laying a little Astroturf, you should probably take some of the grief as well, don’t you think?” More here. Additional post here.

Tom Murphy. (Based in Ireland. ) Blog name: PR Opinions.

January 12: “Ketchum would want to re-evaluate their VNR business. Is the revenue worth all the grief they are getting? The fact they’ve been using Karen Ryan in the past is worrying to say the least, given the uproar that followed previous VNRs. As a result the response to the Armstrong Williams appearance can’t have been a surprise.Tell me they can’t have been surprised.” More here. Additional post here (don’t miss the comments).

Alice Marshall. Blog name: Technoflak:

January 9: “This is not the first time Ketchum has been caught manufacturing news. What is so stunning is the blatant venality. Usually these things are done with enough subtlety to preserve the fiction of journalistic integrity.” More here. Additional post here.

Shel Holtz. (Writer, principal of Holtz Communication & Technology.) Blog name: a shel of my former self.

January 14: “It seems that ethics policies only apply when the fallout of invoking them is of little consequence. The fact that Ketchum brokered this deal is a clear violation. To pass the buck solely to Williams is the same as letting Charles Manson off scott-free because, after all, it was the rest of the gang who committed the murders; Manson only put them up to it.”

Steve Crescenzo (Consultant, writer, heads Crescenzo Communications) Blog name: Corporate Hallucinations.

January 12: What’s odd about this entire thing is that the silence out of the Ketchum camp has been deafening. As far as I can tell, they have put their organizational head firmly in the sand, and are running from the situation. As you’ll see if you read the full story, Ketchum is referring all calls to the Department of Education. Yes, that’s right. The media relations specialists are referring all calls to the client.

There are some hard-hitting posts in there. But I expected a bigger response for several reasons. First, because this was the second time Ketchum was implicated in the possible misuse of taxpayer dollars to promote propaganda. (Remember “reporter” Karen Ryan? See the original GAO report here.)

Second, because the team took the time to link a PDF file of Ketchum’s contract and toss the PR blogosphere a bone. And, third, because pushing the PR industry is necessary work. Take this tepid statement by Harris Diamond, the 2005 Chairman, Council of Public Relations Firms (Jan. 18):

“While the Council is not in a position to review the Department of Education contract, nor should we be, Ketchum has informed us that they are reviewing all of the issues relating to this matter. We all have high regard for the Ketchum management team, and I am confident they will take whatever action is appropriate. We want to make sure that the Council’s position is clear: Payments to journalists for specific coverage (“pay for play”) is unacceptable.”

Here are a number of questions that occurred to me —someone with only an outsider’s perspective and no industry expertise—as I researched this story. What am I missing? I invite you to add to this list:

Unanswered questions and further thoughts for investigation

1.) Has or hasn’t Ketchum been fined or censured for using taxpayer money for its role in both the Medicare VNR and DOE/Williams media campaigns criticized by the GAO? Why/why not?

2.) As part of the Diversified Agency Services (DAS), a division of the Omnicom Group, are Ketchum officers held to the same corporate code of conduct?

3.) Does the non-disclosure of Armstrong Williams’ arrangement with Ketchum uphold the Omnicom code, both explicitly and in spirit? (See “Political Activities” and “Conclusion” sections)

4.) What are consequences for violating this code of conduct? Within Ketchum? Within Omnicom, the corporation responsible for Ketchum?

5.) The U.S. Dept. of Education signed an agreement with Ketchum designate “Elizabeth McLean”.

6.) Are other Omnicom marketing, advertising and PR firms practicing business like Ketchum does? E.G., Ketchum announced a “professional writer’s group” in November of 2004 that includes many name-brand, award-winning former journalists.

7.) Similarly, what are the disclosure practices and ethical guidelines for activities by former elected officials such as former Congresswoman Susan Molinari, who now runs a Ketchum subsidiary?

8.) Should Ketchum return its fee to DOE?

9.) How did Ketchum determine Armstrong Williams’ compensation ($240,000)? Is this fee standard for a commentator/celebrity endorsement? Who set the price? What is a typical budget for ads during the second half of an election on these shows?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Here’s a list of PR bloggers who have weighed in on Ketchum’s behavior, Jay’s post and this post. I’ve provided a sampling of their comments, but, as always, I urge you to visit their sites to read their full comments in context:

Elizabeth Albrycht. Blog name: CorporatePR.
Here’s a sample of her multifaceted opinion on (a) Ketchum and (b) How she views her writing on the blog:

January 20: “…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.”
…”While I am a blogger, I don’t consider myself a “pit bull of reporting” as Ariana Huffington would say. And Jay’s description of bloggers doesn’t really apply perfectly to me and how I see my blog….In my mind, my blog doesn’t exist for me to report news, but rather to explore theories and issues with a rather academic bent. That being said, I have noticed that I am increasingly being approached as a reporter of sorts, and I am beginning to want to do more independent reporting on the industry. I just haven’t put that into play yet, given I am up to my ears in Forum preparation….” More here.

Steve Rubel. Blog name: Micropersuasion.

>January 19:”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.” More here.

Trevor Cook. Blog name: Corporate Engagement.

January 20:”Let me say at the outset that I think Rosen’s criticisms of the (general lack) of interest PR bloggers have shown in the Ketchum story are valid and important….the problem is that unethical practices affect the PR industry overall and something should be done. Government regulation is not desirable - though it may become inevitable if there are too many scandals. Effective self-regulation by industry bodies seems a forlorn hope. So, maybe we should turn to blogging to focus attention on the practices that give our industry a bad reputation. But, I’m not quite sure how that would work. Would PR people attacking each other look just like an attempt to snare some shred of additional competitive advantage? Still, Rosen’s article is a wake-up call, I think, and I hope it prompts more vigilance on the part of PR bloggers everywhere.” More here.

Mike Manuel. Blog name: Media Guerilla.

January 20: “I feel obligated to chime in with my two cents on Jay Rosen’s post. Honestly, I’m torn over the thing. Part of me is thinking what the f_ _ k, 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. I’m having a hard enough time making time to walk my dog. But the other part of me recognizes there’s a bigger issue here for our industry, and to ignore it or pretend I can’t do my part to shine a light (really, a pocket flashlight) on the issue is silly. The opportunity has come and gone and I’m sorry I missed it, but the lesson has been learned and life goes on.” More here.

I’m eager to grow my initial list of bloggers by adding your name, comment and contributions—or please, add them yourselves below. I’ll keep posting these as I hear of them:

Marc Snyder. Blog name: (emm-ess) consultants

January 20: Here’s my take on it Rosen should have called out our associations, not the bloggers. [Provides list of bloggers who posted about it.] What’s the takeaway for PR bloggers? Some of us should have reacted to this issue. Myself included. Our associations have been silent/obtuse on this issue.” More here.

Also, see Jay Rosen’s growing list of comments at the bottom of this post.

More After Matter: More notes, reactions and links…

I just read Blogger ChrisRaphael’s comment here on Jay Rosen’s original piece: “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.”

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!

Mediopolis, founded in January 2005 by bloggers ChrisRaphael, MonikaZ, PauNino and UnsoberGrandpa, performs some of the best blogging I’ve read on Ketchumgate—particularly its scrutiny of media coverage of this story and its historical context for government abuse of propaganda laws:

January 15: “To appreciate how low a modern public relations agency will sink to shape public opinion, it’s worth taking a hard look at Ketchum Public Relations….None of the government agencies were ever held accountable for their propaganda and, of course, it’s unlikely that any government agency will have to make amends for using taxpayer funds to spread propaganda. The Chicago Tribune, in a recent editorial, suggested that the Bush administration was destroying its credibility through phony news reports and journalistic bribery. It made a redundant and useless call for the administration to “tell the truth.” A more successful route might be for news organizations to increase their scrutiny of the propaganda marriage between the U.S. government and public relations firms.” More here. Additional posts here, here, here, here, and here.


Jeneane Sessum. Blog name: Allied.

January 7: “I worked for Ketchum once upon a time. I have never been secret about my likes and dislikes. I have a few fond memories. I also think the business model of BigPR is broken for good.” More here.

Eric Schwartzman. Blog name: Internet PR News Blog

January 17: “Interestingly enough, Rich never mentions Ketchum by name in his column, referring only to a “private p.r. agency” through which the payola flowed. But perhaps more importantly for readers of this blog is that on the heels of Fleischmann-Hillard’s recent indictment for the rampant over billing of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), another big p.r. firm has lost credibility in the eyes of both the media and the public.”
Posted by Lisa Stone at January 20, 2005 11:34 AM