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The Kethum Crisis & Us

Apparently we’re all bad, bad people for not jumping on the Ketchum issue:-

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.”

First, Jay is so, so wrong. There’s been plenty of dialogue flying around on this. And lets not be so arrogant as to assume that dialogue needs to take place here – although fair point that more might of. From me as well. Richard Edleman’s commentary is commendable as was that of Paul Holmes.

And since when does anyone get to set the nature or volume of the editorial agenda – and the hypicrosy is a little rich – there are dozens of issues I see media bloggers absent on – circulation, ethics, disclosure, inaccurate reporting, advertiser bias.

OK – so enough of the “ain’t we all bad bloggers” side-show… And on to the real issue, which for me is as much about media ethics as it is about PR ethics. So lets start there.

In all the materials I’ve read and looked at there doesn’t seem to be anything explicity in writing calling for Williams to provide positive commentary – although this is implicit in the payment. Bias and space was bought. The media were hoodwinked. Or were they just asleep at the wheel? Either way, Ketchum employees and Williams should not have knowlingly engaged in such flagrant media and public manipulation, made all the worse for doing so with public funds. And neither should go without some kind of censure that would include the return of misused public funds. That was our money. We’d like it back.

Ketchum is a fine company with hundreds of ethical hard working employees. There initial response has done them irreversible reputational harm but they at last seem to have come to thier senses.

The issue of Williams disclosing the payment is also an important technicality in my mind. Spokespeople are paid to speak every day, by every sector of industry and government. And the media fails to force disclosure every day. In fact I still beleive that the majority of jounralists do not engage in any kind of fair disclosure with regard to thier interest, sources and content. We need a clear disclosure standard managed and monitored by our professional bodies and, most importantly, by the media. And the media need to embrace a disclosure standard of their own.

Saying that, the PR Industry has a code of ethics provided by our various industry associations. These seem to have been broken. If we can’t self-police then someone will do it for us. Elliot Sloane touches on this in his commentary on Richard Edelman’s blog:-

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.

Kudos to PRSA president Judith Phair called Ketchum’s situation ‘a shame, disturbing and harmful’. But what is the PRSA going to do? Phair did make the point that:-

“clearly contrary to the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, which requires that public relations professionals engage in open, honest communications, and fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.”

OK – so now what? Nothing? We all just move on? Enforce the code of conduct or it’s not a code at all. At least the National Association of Black Journalists was discussing action against Williams.

We need to get our industry organizations – both media and PR – in a position to take action for such flagrant breaches of our codes of ethics. For all of us that have not engaged in those organizations (me included) it’s time to do so.

“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.

At the end of the day I welcome the commentary and do agree we need deeper dialogue and discussion of the issue. More than anything, we need our PR industry bodies to stand-up and take action. Lisa Stone has a pretty reasonable list of other questions that deserve answering.

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