Story location:

January 22, 2005

Keystone Crisis Management at Ketchum: Check the Home Page

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?

Issues & Crisis Management: When the going gets tough, a growing number of companies turn to Ketchum for help navigating the often treacherous paths of issues and crisis management. They know that Ketchum offers clients a global network of seasoned professionals with the expertise to respond to the most demanding and sensitive business situations— Ketchum site

Well, the going got tough recently for Ketchum, the big PR agency at the center of the Armstrong Williams corrupt-a-columnist case. It was a big news week too. The company had to issue a statement reversing itself and admitting fault, after first saying others had all the responsibility for corrupting Williams as columnist and show host.

Stuart Elliot’s coverage in the New York Times Jan. 19 and Jan. 20 tell the story, along with two prior PressThink posts. (Here and here.)

“The Ketchum public relations agency has reversed course…” said Elliot’s account. And indeed, I received by e-mail Wednesday an official statement reversing course— and apologizing. I re-print it (below) because it’s interesting, but also because I enjoy operating for them, at my own blog, Ketcham’s Online Press Office. Here’s what I mean:

If you go to Ketchum’s Media Center (promising, for us information hounds) and then to Latest News (promising, you would think) you find the Ketchum site is currently distributing to the world something like: “Ketchum to Host Panel on ‘What Women Want: Connecting With the New Technology Consumer’ - New York, Dec. 15, 2004…” What you cannot find is its newsmaking announcement from Jan. 19.

A little odd for a world class PR firm, no?

There’s more. The site shows no awareness at all that it is the “live” public face of a company in the news and under pressure from peers. This would be mildly comical in the case of a chemical company. It is more amusing, and ironic in the instance of a public relations agency fighting for its reputation and blissfully unaware of what its Web site is doing to that reputation.

For example: The front page boasts of an op ed piece, “Williams scandal is a ‘transformational event’ in PR, written by Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum,” in PRWeek, Jan. 13. This particular text is on its way to becoming notorious for its attempt to sow confusion in readers, who are treated as utter dupes. (See this.)

It was for the attitudes and statements on view in this op-ed, a brazen work of peer-to-peer deception, that Ketchum apologized on Jan 20. Read it. It’s hilarious, that piece. And it’s live, now.

It may be, then, that “a growing number of companies turn to Ketchum for help navigating the often treacherous paths of issues and crisis management,” but a live, mismanaged website suggests this might have been a hasty decision on their part (the dupes.) And let’s remember that this week Ketchum had to tap those very crisis-handling skills, which it lists as a practice area, in reversing course and issuing a damage-control statement. Stuart Elliot:

Previously, in articles in the trade publication PR Week, Ketchum, owned by the Omnicom Group, had defended itself, saying Mr. Williams was responsible for disclosing the payments. But in the statement, which Ketchum attributed to its chief executive, Ray Kotcher, the agency said it regretted the lack of disclosure.

So Ray Kotcher, the boss, regrets writing the piece now showing on his firm’s front page. And this is from the 2002 Agency of the Year. A broken, clueless, counter-productive website, on day three of a public relations crisis at the (public relations) firm. 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.

Live cluelessness in a “communications” company. Fascinating for some.

Incidentally, after the Williams story broke, and started heating up in the blog sphere, I found an interview about PR and bloggers with two young hotshots at Ketchum.

“And we as practitioners need to embrace blogs wholeheartedly,” Nicholas Scibetta says in the interview. “We need to really dig deep to understand what the mindset of bloggers is and what we can do to foster mutually beneficial relationships with them.” That sounded good to me. So I e-mailed Scibetta and his colleague Adam Brown on Jan. 8th, told them I had questions:

1.) Has Ketchum made an official statement about the Armstrong Williams contract?

2.) I realize that the transaction, at bottom, is between DoE and Williams, and that Kethcum is a middleman, but this is precisely my question. Kethcum is an established firm and its people know the rules. So why did Kethchum find it proper to funnel $240,000 to a journalist to promote a government agenda? Or does Ketchum find it improper?

3.) Why weren’t people at Ketchum concerned when the contract was signed, and Williams received the money, and yet no disclosure had been made, either by DoE or Williams? Can it really be that no one at your firm anticipated what would happen if the arrangement became known? It’s hard to believe because that would be a case of spectacular incompetence in an area where your company is supposed to be expert.

4.) Let’s look at what did happen. Tribune Media Services terminated Williams as a syndicated columnist. The National Association of Black Journalists condemned Williams. The Washington Post in an editorial today roundly condemned your client. Looking at the series of events, was this a case of incompetence at Ketchum, bad internal policy, perhaps a “rogue” employee, professional misjudgment by the team who worked on the contract, bad information fromDoE or Williams, or what?

That was on January 8, day after the news broke. They blew me off, sending no reply, which wasn’t great for our relationship. Until Jan. 19, after I gave them a “last chance” notice. Adam Brown finally sent me a link to the hilarious Kotcher op-ed (peer-to-peer deception) and the statement below contradicting it, which you cannot find at He made no attempt to answer My questions.

KETCHUM STATEMENT on this scandal, released to the press, Jan. 19.

Ketchum is committed to adhering to industry guidelines and to high ethical standards in every aspect of its business practices. Ketchum has its own Code of Business Ethics, which includes a commitment to present our clients’ products, services, or positions truthfully and accurately. Every new Ketchum colleague is asked to sign this code upon joining the firm.

In working with the Department of Education to create advertising for its No Child Left Behind Act, Ketchum contracted with the Graham Williams Group. Long before he entered a contract with us, Mr. Armstrong Williams, principal of this advertising/public relations agency and also a commentator, was an advocate for the No Child Left Behind program, which he strongly supported during a number of television appearances.

We should have recognized the potential issues in working with a communications firm operated by a commentator. Mr. Williams repeatedly has acknowledged that he should have disclosed the nature of his relationship with the Department of Education. We agree. As a result this work did not comply with the guidelines of our agency and our industry. Under those guidelines, it is clear that we should have encouraged greater disclosure. There was a lapse of judgment in this situation. We regret that this has occurred.

We are taking this matter very seriously and have the following steps underway to make sure that we always meet the existing guidelines of both the agency and the industry.

We are putting in place a new policy for the signing and authorization of contracts with spokespeople.

In agency-wide communications, we have underscored our guidelines about how our people should represent our client work to the media.

We have established a central number for our people to call if they have any questions.

We are developing a new process by which we deal with subcontracts. In short, all subcontractors will be expected to abide by the agency’s ethical standards.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions and Links

Kevin Dugan at Strategic Public Relations reacts: “Suggesting consistency between online and offline messages is simply common sense. And we already suggested that Ketchum could have avoided this inconsistency issue by creating a crisis communications blog. So here is one more idea, aimed at the blog-savvy agencies out there… Create a SWAT team that is a blend of your crisis and online practices.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 22, 2005 1:30 PM