In early 2009, the Halifax-Plympton Reporter received a letter to the editor urging, "People contact their Congressman about the Medicare Advantage program, a sort of privatized health plan paid for through the recipient's Medicare. There may be some interest in doing away with the program."
Seems benign enough, right? The letter was signed by a local resident, but it didn't mention the local Congressman who people should contact, which the paper's editor found strange. So he called the man whose signature was on the letter and was surprised to learn he had no idea what he was talking about.
The editor filed the letter and went on about his day.
About a week later, he received a phone call from a man who said he was calling on behalf of the person who wrote the letter. The editor told the caller what he had done and asked who he was and who he worked for. He declined to tell the editor who he was and hung up the phone.
But what the caller didn't count on was caller ID.
The editor traced the caller back to a high-powered lobbying and public affairs firm. It became pretty evident the firm was working for an organization with an interest in keeping Medicare Advantage in business...and were creating letters to the editors in the names of people in the Congressional District without their knowledge.
Spin Certainly Sucks
This isn't uncommon. A couple of years ago, Burson-Marsteller was caught in a whisper campaign. They were creating negative stories about Google on behalf of Facebook and journalists nearly had a fit.
The PR industry is not notorious for its ethics. In fact, because of the reputation, this blog is called Spin Sucks.
It's pretty disappointing when people in our profession not only do unethical things, but get caught doing them and we all suffer.
But where do we draw the line?
Work with Foreign Governments
Fast forward to two weeks ago when President Putin wrote an OpEd that ran in the New York Times. It quickly came out that Ketchum, a large and highly respected PR firm, placed the editorial, just a day after President Obama made his speech regarding Syria.
Ketchum has long worked for the Russian government, placing stories and interviews for Putin in American publications for several years.
There isn't anything wrong with working with foreign governments as long as the companies provide detailed reports of their activities to the U.S. government.
Foreign governments tend to be substantial business for the larger, global firms and, when handled correctly, help advance human rights and world peace. That is good.
What's not good is when the PR firms use their work with foreign governments to fake stories, create non-existent opportunities, and dismiss the facts.
Case in point: The same PR firm also places editorials by "seemingly independent professionals" that praise Russia in outlets such as CNBC and the Huffington Post, according to ProPublica.
The site goes on to detail the pieces that were written and by whom, but chides agencies - and media outlets - for not disclosing how the opinion pieces ended up there in the first place. A disclosure that would say something along the lines of, "A representative from Ketchum contacted us and placed this OpEd in our publication."
Disclosure in Media Relations
I wonder, again, where we draw the line?
Media relations is the backbone of a strong communications program. There are many relationships we have at Arment Dietrich that we created on behalf of our clients and continue them for the benefit of current and future clients.
Journalists and bloggers know we have a business reason to be contacting them and they know, when pitching an editorial or a story, we're doing so on behalf of a client.
Should we have to say, in every email or phone call or text, "This is on behalf of XYZ client," particularly if we work with them a lot for that client or it's clear who we're pitching?
And should the media have to disclose the relationship with us when running the story?
I suppose, in an age of transparency, it makes sense for the media to disclose the relationship when printing the story. I wonder, then, how many stories in the paper or on the news will have those disclosures? I'd venture to guess more than half, even closer to 70 or 80 percent.
I don't have the right answer, but what I do know is this: Astroturfing, whisper campaigns, and making up people to write editorials on behalf of your clients is bad. I'd even go so far as to say placing an OpEd in an American publication from a man who has no interest in working with our government is bad.
But I do understand why it's done and, just like cigarettes and big oil, there are some organizations who will do the work. But why should we all suffer?