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‘Pay for play’ unacceptable in media, PR


It was revealed earlier this month that nationally syndicated columnist and TV personality Armstrong Williams was also working as a paid spokesman for the programs of the U.S. Department of Education — a violation of the ethical standards of both journalism and the public relations professions. The public relations industry denounced Williams’ behavior, reinforcing the position of the journalism profession that payment to media members for specific coverage (“pay for play”) is unacceptable.

But Williams’ mistakes raise two additional questions.

First, what separates our government’s role of informing citizens of their best interests from this arguably successful attempt at propaganda?

Principally, it’s disclosure. Both media and PR professionals have a responsibility to ensure the disclosure of who is paying for our work — whether it is a media company, government agency or a corporation.

It’s worth mentioning that many public relations firms have worked ethically and productively with government agencies for decades. Outreach programs inform the public about important health issues, social programs and other activities of our government, and PR firms play an important role in the success of those programs. Problems emerge when the sources and motivations for these programs are hidden.

The second question: Was Armstrong Williams a journalist or a PR person?

Williams leads a PR firm, and he had his own TV and radio shows and a syndicated newspaper column, too. Plus, he was paid by another PR firm to be a spokesman for the federal government. Some have said that Williams represents a changing media environment where the roles of reporters, commentators and spokespeople are increasingly merging to blur the lines of journalism and PR.

So, I feel compelled to restate the ethics that journalists and public relations professionals hold that forbid this kind of behavior.

The Society of Professional Journalists says its members should not take anything of value in exchange for stories; journalists are not paid promoters. Further, Iowa journalists have told us that maintaining their objectivity and independence in reporting news is among their highest priorities. And Iowa businesses say this is their expectation, too.

In our 2003 Iowa Business:Media Index survey of Iowa’s daily media outlets and largest employers, journalists say they trust Iowa’s business leaders, and business leaders say they trust Iowa journalists. But both sides said the media are sometimes manipulated by politicians, business leaders, editors and others.

Meanwhile, the PR industry, as represented by the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Public Relations Society of America, says relationships with spokespeople must be disclosed. One of our key ethical principles is protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information.

Another of our principles is to work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the PR profession. Armstrong Williams did not make this job easier. Still, the public relations industry often works with third-party stakeholders; it is vital for our profession that the integrity of these relationships not be compromised.

Our firm will continue to avoid any practice that calls into question the integrity of the information we share. The role of all public relations firms must be to continue ethical practices in serving clients and rigorously follow the highest standards to maintain the independence of American journalists.

Indeed, media outlets must be independent of control by government or business interests. Open communication fosters informed decision-making in a democratic society. Public relations professionals can continue to play an important role in maintaining the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials and the public — an essential role in serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.

Thomas Jefferson wrote at length about the role of the press in America. And in the wake of the Armstrong Williams debacle, I take some comfort in Jefferson’s 200-year-old guidance that “our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.”

Ronald Hanser is president of Des Moines-based Hanser & Associates Public Relations and global president of Pinnacle Worldwide Inc. He can be reached at rhanser@hanser.com.

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