“Covert Propaganda”

As the world learns more about how PR practitioners interact with journalists (and others) to advocate for a point of view, the industry today received a wake-up call when the non-partisan General Accounting Office formally charged the Bush Administration with illegally practicing “covert propaganda” in its efforts to position itself as “committed to education.” (Just think Armstrong Williams, Ketchum PR and “No Child Left Behind.”)

Was it the nature of the message or the means with which it was delivered that precipitated the GAO’s ruling yesterday? Clearly, many in our industry, most notably Richard Edelman, but myself included, bristled at the idea of paying a “journalist” to disseminate information. The abhorrent and aberrant practice not only compromises the integrity of the journalist, but it is a blatant breach of public relations ethics.

So I ask: was it payola to Armstrong Williams or the fact that the Administration used taxpayer dollars to propagate a political message (versus a public service message) that led to the indictment? Probably both. More importantly, what residual affect will this ruling have on how the profession is viewed and its future vitality? Hopefully those who chafe at the notion of transparency will get smart.