Where's the condemnation of the bloggers?

The past couple of weeks have seen Ketchum and Armstrong Williams (well, mostly Armstrong Williams) being condemned for paying/taking money to promote the No Child Left Behind program.

I believe that this is a bad situation for public relations, I blogged about it once already ... and will blog about it again this week.

So, we have seen Williams thrown to the wolves, Ketchum has brought some level of ruin - yet to fully be determined - to the business of paid consultants by not ensuring that Williams gave full disclosure (but, then again, Ketchum could have ensured that the program was promoted and disclosed, but that might have been too much for them). Hey, it's just like what they did for VNRs!

But, what about bloggers that were paid by the Dean campaign as consultants? What's the difference here? This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal wrote about two prominent left bloggers who were paid consultants to the Dean campaign (subreq). Slate then wrote a good discourse on the situation.

Journalists - and, let's be honest, Williams is a pundit, not a journalist - are prepared for their profession. They have the training, the practices, the ethics that they are supposed to follow. Yes, there are aberrations - Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass are the most famous - but overall the system works.

What do bloggers have? An informal blogger ethics code, but nothing concrete.

The argument for the two bloggers are that they disclosed that they were consultants to the Dean campaign. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't wash it for me. Imagine a reporter that covered Kerry or Dean or Dubya being paid as a consultant ... and still covering the candidate. Would that journalist get a free ride? Of course not. So, why should a blogger?

Many bloggers view themselves as citizen journalists. This "paid consultancy" is the sort of behavior that is going to smear the blogosphere, and get people to question the blogosphere as a resource for individual content.

Blogs have changed public relations, and its cases like this that show that the line Armstrong Williams crossed is much less defined in the blogosphere.

As public relations professionals, we should draw the line in the sand and ensure that whatever we do, we hold ourselves to a higher level of ethics. We don't need to pay bloggers to blog - we pitch, but no paid "consultants." There's full disclosure on VNRs, and there is no need to have anyone "reporting."

The fact is that when things like this happen, it's public relations that takes the hit. We cannot afford that, nor should we need to put ourselves in such a position to have our actions questioned.

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5 comments

  1. A spokesperson is considered an advocate on behalf of a company (or an entity, as in the Williams case.)

    Problem is he didn’t come clean. And neither did Ketchum, which for sure should have known better as the PR agency of record and the one doing the hiring.

    PR professionals, either client-side or agency hacks, we are all paid spokespeople, and it’s implied when we call, e-mail or otherwise pitch media on behalf of the client, that we are doing this as a paid consultant or employee.

    The same “old media” rules of disclosure should apply to “new media” maybe even more so in the Blogosphere, because of the total transparency of the medium (Look at CBS and Dan Rather-gate).

    Any company using paid bloggers would be busted, as what happened in the early days of chat rooms and the like with KFC fighting off rumors of Franken-foods or Franken-chicken on chartrooms (Edelman case).

    Neither the agency or the client identified that they were paid to post chats and it was soon discovered. Lesson here … come clean and if your message is credible, then you may win some hearts and minds, if not stomachs as in KFC’s case.

    But back to Williams and the role of paid spokespeople. A paid spokesperson is and should remain a viable PR tactic to help get a message out, as long as the person is identified as such. My problem in this case, is the ethics of Ketchum to:

    a) not ensure full disclosure prior to interviews as a talking head
    b) post-fact they let their man hang dry

    Caveat emptor for PR spokespeople from now on ….

    Alec

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  2. Way off base. Bloggers aren't the news media. Kos disclosed that he was being paid by the Dean people. Everyone knew (if they wanted to know). Journalists have an unsigned contract with the public that they are unbiased and uninfluenced by money. While pundits, on the other hand, are paid to be biased, they too must abide by a similar contract and disclose whether they are receiveing money from those they write about or whether they own stock in a company they write about. Bloggers are in a wholly different category. Wholly.

    I take free books from publishers and review them on my own blog, and I feel no need to disclose this. I review the book as I see fit, and usually I don't review it at all. People come to my site expecting opinion and partisanship. As a courtesy, I would tell them I am being paid to do work for the Democrats, just as Kos did, but there'd be no need to go further -- and even going that far is, as I said, a courtesy, not a requirement; blogging has no defined rules as of yet. Armstrong is in another category, acting as a lobbyist and abusing the bully pulpit given to him, with trust, by the Tribune syndicate, to push for legislation he was being paid to endorse. Sickening, no comparison, unacceptable. In fact, there's not an iota of comparison. Once again, Kos said he was getting paid! Williams didn;t. Period. End of story. And Kos puts out his blog on his own nickel, without the backing of a major news syndicate, which has strict ethical guidelines of which Armstrong made a mockery. So fuck Armstrong Williams and fuck Ketchum, too, his partner in crime and architect of this dark, slimy agreement. Feh.

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  3. While I’m new to the world of blogs, I’m not new to media, having worked in PR for more than 15 years, and earned a Masters in Media Management from the New School University in NY, w/ focus in new media.

    Blogs, like it or not, are media. They disseminate information, albeit in a non-traditional delivery system. Eventually, the rules or contracts (implicit or explicit) of the old media world will permeate the blogosphere, the same happened to online news sites. The better blogs will get the recognition and the ones busted for non-disclosure of corporate or political affiliations will lose credibility and even users., as they will be viewed as a sell out as best or fraudulent at worst.


    I agree w/ Richard on the disclosure of Armstrong, and your analogy of a lobbyist is also on target. Years ago I did work for a major tobacco company in Florida and I always disclosed that when speaking to media and gov’t officials. I also disclosed that I was a non-smoker and did not allow smoking in my house. Could a spokesperson not be more open about their personal and professional positions vis-à-vis their client.

    While blogers may not be journalists and not all blogs are news sites, all blogs are media, as they disseminate info for others to read and even comment upon. That is a fact that time will bear out my friend.


    Alec

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  4. Richard, respectfully - I disagree. You can say period, end of story, all you want. It doesn't change reality.

    Yes, he had a 'bit' on his blog saying he did 'technical work' for the Demos (with a link to more), but not full disclosure - even if you followed the link. There IS a difference. I'm not slamming Kos, but I do think that the defenses I see of him do not 'fully wash' ... he should have said more.

    I'm referring to these posts on DailyKos: "Disclosure: I do some technical work for Howard Dean."

    web.archive.org/web/20030910064832/http://www.dailykos.com/index.html
    web.archive.org/web/20030810115427/www.dailykos.com/archives/002972.html

    All from the Wayback Machine Archive.

    --blockquote--
    "But for the record, I will not discuss my role within the Dean campaign, other than to say it's technical, not message or strategy. I will also not discuss any of my other clients, including their identities (I have non-disclose agreements to which I must adhere)."
    --end blockquote--

    OK, some is proprietary and such ... but to not name the others?

    "full? disclosure" ???

    Richard, I do not call that 'full disclosure' at all.

    A courtesy? You consider telling the 'full truth' a courtesy? That sounds a bit frightening, to me.

    --blockquote--
    As a courtesy, I would tell them I am being paid to do work for the Democrats, just as Kos did, but there'd be no need to go further -- and even going that far is, as I said, a courtesy, not a requirement; blogging has no defined rules as of yet.
    --end blockquote--

    I think you mistate this, sir. Yes, some bloggers may not have defined rules, but people do. Professionals do. Disclosure - full disclosure - is not only necessary, but required. With Kos refusing to identify all of his clients, he has effectively diluted all comments he makes about anyone -- especially those not known to be paying him. Yes, I know his politics. That's fine. But, after that 'non-disclosure' every thing he says becomes suspect.

    Can you really defend that?

    No argument here as to the failings of Williams, Ketchum, PRSA and the US Dept. of Education. But, the rest of your defense is 'wholly' inadequate. It avoids one truly important element - reality.

    Oh, and one more thing. Unlock the profile, Richard. Anyone can follow my Blogger profile link and determine who I am. Yours is closed. You can't even fully disclose who you are to defend your comments. See, you just diluted your defense by hiding... which is what Kos, Ketchum, the US Dept. of Education and Williams were doing. Do you enjoy being in that company?

    Richard, I'm a liberal guy. I've never bought into the 'fer us, or agin us' philosophy from any side. I was raised by people that voted for McCarthy - and I don't mean Joe. But I cannot defend this non-disclosure disclosue.

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  5. Sure enough, it is disclosure that would have prevented Williams and Ketchum from making this sort of (bad) news.

    Bloggers however are not held to any standard other then their own. One blogger may choose to be transparent while another may choose to be completely discrete.

    Isn't that what democracy and the freedom of the Press is about? Choices?

    Eventually any one who engages in blogging with a capitalistic intent is going to be discovered to be doing so. Likewise, when a blogger just feels the need to "blow of some steam"; a discerning reader is going to see this.

    News Organizations are capitalistic. And profit oriented. Public Relations (if I remember correctly) started as a means of dealing with the "Press". This was back when the Press was considered to be more of a public service and trust. Not a business as it is today.

    In communications theory and practice classes, the same thing is reiterated over and over again. Communications is about the message. Inherent in this is determining who is originating the message and how the message is communicated.

    From an earlier comment, I have to agree that the good bloggers will continue to have readers and grow in popularity irregardless of their motives. The bad bloggers will be relegated to the outer reaches of cyberspace where no ship passes.

    I suppose I am saying that the blogosphere is somewhat like the earth in my opinion. Self regulating and self healing. I hope I am not too optimistic about that.

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