Armstrong Williams payoff scandal sullies PR industry

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The revelation that media pundit Armstrong Williams' company received $240,000 to support the Bush administration's education agenda in the media is turning attention to public relations firms' oft obscured role in shaping popular opinion.

While media ethicists have chided Mr. Williams for failing to disclose his relationship with the federal government, the Omnicom Group agency Ketchum has gotten withering criticism from within its own industry for its involvement on behalf of the Department of Education. The Public Relations Society of America last week denounced the tactic. "You have the right to pay somebody to make a statement as long as it's disclosed who they're speaking on behalf of," said Judith Phair, the organization's president-CEO.

Ketchum is scrambling to protect a reputation that places it among the largest and most successful PR firms. Senior partner Lorraine Thelian said it undertook an internal review of its government contracts and did not find any other such relationships with journalists. The firm is planning an external review as well.

Ms. Thelian said the contract with Mr. Williams' PR and ad firm, Graham Williams, required him to acknowledge the contractual relationship, which he did only on some occasions. "He did disclose sometimes and we wish he disclosed all the time."

Ketchum took heat last year when the General Accountability Office said video news releases the firm had created for a Medicare-related public outreach effort violated rules forbidding taxpayer-funded "covert propaganda."

Some criticized the very existence of the contract with Mr. Williams. "It's not a sufficient defense to say that Ketchum should have disclosed or the journalist should have disclosed," said Richard Edelman, president-CEO of independent Edelman, who believes this could have industry-wide repercussions.

different standards

Ms. Thelian countered, "We contracted with [Mr. Williams'] advertising firm and he is a pundit. It's not like contracting with someone for The New York Times and not disclosing it."

To be sure, Mr. Williams' profile in the media world does complicate the ethical calculus. Mr. Williams operates in the world of opinion-making and advocated the Bush education bill long before Ketchum approached him in 2003. These facts, ethicists said, subject him to different standards.

But "one of those [standards] is disclosing anything material that could affect [his] opinion-and a quarter million dollars would fall into that category," said Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, CJR Daily.

For his part, Mr. Williams has apologized publicly but maintains he never tried to get other influencers to push the Bush law.

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