Sunday, January 09, 2005

Ethics, Anyone? 

The news from late last week was disturbing on the PR front. USA Today reported that the US Department of Education had paid commentator and columnist, Armstrong Williams, $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Law(NCLB) , a favorite of the Bush Administration. The money was for Williams to bring up the law regularly on his radio broadcasts, as well as to interview the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during 2004.

The disturbing part of the news was that Ketchum Public Relations was hauled in as part of the contract to use Williams' contacts with a group of black broadcast journalists to get them to talk up the NCLB law as well. Williams did just that. Here's the problem. Williams never disclosed his contract to his audiences, although he maintains that he told his colleagues about it. If Ketchum disclosed what was happening, no one seems to know that. Now, in my memory, the Public Relations Society of America in its principles calls for transparency in these kinds of relationships.

Needless to say, Williams' colleagues in the journalism world were unhappy about these monetary arrangements even though Williams says he believes in the law and would have promoted it anyway.

It is hard to say how Ketchum comes out in all of this. Apparently Williams was part of a $1 million contract with Ketchum to make Video News Releases about NCLB with Williams the featured person. The Bush administration already got into trouble for doing VNRs about Medicare, so it is certain to get into trouble again with this.

Perhaps no one had an ethical lapse in the end, but it does make a case for transparency to maintain credibility.


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