The Armstrong Williams Blame Game — PR Needs to Stand Up

Jay Rosen makes a good point in a blog entry about the Armstrong Williams corruption case. He wonders why most PR bloggers went quiet about Armstrong and his $240,000 payment by agency giant Ketchum to promote the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

I have a theory – because it’s easier to assign blame than to accept it. And who better to blame than the media, which is responsible for everything these days, from the decline of moral values to obesity in children. If I’m late on a credit card payment I just blame the media, and that’s usually good enough for a 30-day reprieve from collections.

There are two basic flaws, however, with blaming Williams for this fiasco. First of all, he’s as much a journalist as Ashlee Simpson is a good singer. Williams is so embarrassingly awful he makes Geraldo Rivera seem legitimate. Okay, true, no one is that bad, even Williams.

I know I sound bitter and snide, but people like Williams make me nuts. I went to the Missouri School of Journalism and spent the first half of my adult life as a reporter, and I can’t stand people who treat the profession as anything less than a sacred public trust.

But what also makes me crazy is the second flaw in the “blame Williams” theory, which is if anyone is to blame, it’s the PR firm.

I worked for a major PR agency for six years before going out on my own, and while we never did anything so blatantly asenine, we came damn close. We produced “video news releases” that pretended to be real news stories – and a lot of stations, budget-strapped and starved for content, ran them as is. We wrote op-ed pieces on behalf of people who sometimes never even saw the finished product before it would appear in the Los Angeles Times. We never paid anyone directly as Ketchum did Williams, but given the opportunity, who knows.

Most PR firms and practitioners are honest, as are most journalists. Reasonable people know this. But reasonable people in the PR industry should also hold their profession accountable, and that starts first not by looking at themselves through a microscope, but by looking at themselves in the mirror.

PR professionals certainly have to do better than Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum, whose op-ed in PR Week was less than forthcoming. He puts the onus on Williams for not disclosing the information about his payment, and is somewhat apologist in saying that Williams was, after all, a No Child Left Behind advocate, and besides, he had a side-business, and doesn’t that blur the lines, and so on.

A leader takes less credit when things go right and more blame when they go wrong. It’s time for the PR world to lead.

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