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Gini Dietrich

Ketchum and the Putin OpEd Create Disclosure in Media Relations Debate

By: Gini Dietrich | September 26, 2013 | 
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Ketchum and the Putin OpEd Create Disclosure in Media Relations DebateBy Gini Dietrich

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?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

66 comments
LynnMcConaughey
LynnMcConaughey

Gini, I was interested to see the direction you went with this issue, and it was unexpected that you focused on the disclosure aspect. I was more upset by the treatment the op-ed received from NPR's "The World" than with the transaction itself. I think transparency by PR and strategic communications companies is essential to help break the media of its mantra that influence is inappropriate. Even a simple, "factual" press release is an effort to influence a customer or audience in some way. Working as I have with the US government and defense department, I am part of the internal debate about whether communications by a government to foreign audiences is factual or propaganda (as the term is perceived by most people). It is disingenuous to say that if President Obama is communicating with say, the Russian public via a radio address or op-ed, he is merely informing them of the US' position. He is trying to get them to understand and to sway their perceptions.  I agree with Frank Strong's arguments and his frustration with media always trying to put some sort of spooky spin on PR work that isn't spooky! It is bad for the PR or communications industry to spin but it's just as bad - and damn lazy journalism - for the media establishment to present PR companies as puppeteers.

I also think there's some moral relativism here regarding a firm taking the Russian Republic as a client - I think it would be hard to find a client that has no downside. It's certainly a choice for each PR firm to weigh, and many of us would consider it inappropriate to represent an entity we perceive as trying to do us harm. I just think it's not always that black and white.


This has been another fascinating debate among your very smart and savvy readers!  Glad to be a part of it.

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

Sigh. Don't hate me Gini. I read this...this morning and didn't comment. I can't resist now.  I'll talk policy, then PR. 

Policy:  Syria is incredibly strategic. but sadly most Americans don't care to understand why. Syria links Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah is classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization.  One analyst likens them to a land-based aircraft carrier sitting north of Israel.  Conventional analysis says Russia sells arms to both Syria and Iran. It's complex, no? And we haven't yet discussed tribes or religion or why Iran is worrisome (Hint: Nukes). 

I'm a veteran.  I've deployed twice. I've read and studied a ton of material on the Middle East.  I speak a little Arabic.  This situation scares the F@#$ out of me. 

PR:  What makes our country strong is the First Amendment. I think having opposing views is healthy for our democracy.  I don't trust President Putin, but I for darn sure, want to know what he thinks.  He's not going to call up the NYTs by himself, anymore than our President would.  I have absolutely no problem with Ketchum pitching his ideas. At least in this context. 

Reporters love to dive on this:  the evil PR firm peddling influence.  What they leave out is that the reporter doesn't have to write about it. The accusations then, are better leveled at their peers than they are the PR pro. Further, I'll tell you what, the "evil" reputation this industry has, isn't from PR, it's from marketing folks pretending to PR.  It moves me one step closer to believing in a certification. 

I've read Ryan Holiday.  He's a sad case. He will profit at the expense of others. I frowned for a week when his paperback hit and the whole cycle started all over again. Holiday's philosophy is to intentionally spread either untruths or to market to anger.  Ketchum's oped is not Ryan Holiday. It may make people angry, but it's not evil.  Not yet. 


Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I tell you all the time I would never have shady companies like walmart or facebook as clients. I refuse to sell out for the money. What is ironic is how many men disparage women who say are strippers, yet they themselves sell out more than their body for the money.

Is Edelman shady in the ways Ketchum and Ryan Holiday and Breitbart are? Please say yes! lol

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makasha
makasha

This is a great article. While I think the whisper articles are down right wrong, I don't know if it is possible to give disclaimers on all media placements. 

LouHoffman
LouHoffman


Gini, I agree with your broad point. But I also think it's reasonable to hold journalists accountable for framing their stories with context. 

Rewinding the tape to the Burson whisper campaign on behalf of Facebook, yes the firm should have been transparent and shared the name of the client. However, until  Christopher Soghoian posted his exchange with the BM rep on the Internet and Daily Beast blogger at the time Dan Lyons connected the dots, many journalists used the same information from BM to write their stories ... without the context of knowing who was footing the bill for BM’s work. I suppose this dimension didn't get any play because laziness doesn't make for good copy.

As a more recent example, the New York Times ran a story a couple weeks ago called the "Boy Genius of Ulan Bator." There's no question in my mind that MIT's communications team placed this story as part of its thought leadership campaign around MOOCs. For 99.9% of readers, they simply see a feel-good story (with the MOOC "medicine" sugar coated). Would their impressions from the story change if they knew MIT placed the story. Probably. At the very least, the reader becomes guarded in absorbing the information.

I don't think we will see the day when the New York Times or any heavyweight media property makes such a disclosure. In short, they don't want the average person to know this part of the "sausage making" process. 

susancellura
susancellura

I just can't see Brian Williams stating how NBC got a news story after every piece on the evening news. Or even having a banner run at the bottom of the screen.

1) "The site goes on to detail the pieces that were written and by whom, but chides agencies..." Is/was this just an opportunity to fling mud? Something that people do more and more often based on "transparency"? I don't know.

2) Do papers, etc., now have to consider having footnotes and/or bibliographies for the 70-80% of the news that is printed? 

3) Is this Ketchum kerfluffle a part of the sensational journalism trend? 

I don't know the answer either, but do know the difference between right and wrong. 

susancellura
susancellura

So much to think about. Back later...  :)

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

I think there are a few issues at play.

1. In terms of the editorial from President Putin, I wonder if the New York Times was just excited to have an editorial from the president of Russia, that it didn't stop to think about other things.

2. Does the person need to write the editorial himself? At 8:43 a.m.,  I received an email from Robert Jameson, the communications director for US Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who represents our district. He is submitting a column under the representative's byline. Do I accept it as "his," know that someone on his staff is probably the actual author?

3. While you focus on op-eds, what about press releases? My paper tends to run press releases with no byline, but should we put that it was submitted by such and such PR firm?

There's another thing that bothers me though. I try to run my paper very transparently, and we very much welcome guest columns and op-eds, as well as letters to the editor. However, can a regular person with a valid point get an op-ed in the NYT or WSJ? I'm not sure it can be done with out the help of a PR firm.

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LouHoffman
LouHoffman

@LynnMcConaugheyThe question of morality in regards to an agency taking on a client is a tough one. As you put it, these things are rarely "black and white." One could argue that even Russia falls into the gray area.

We ran into a situation earlier in the year when an online company that facilitates infidelity approached our Asia Pacific team for PR support. Our AP head called me to say the management team had decided to take a pass. A check around the region showed no one was comfortable working for this company.

That's not a bad litmus test. If people who are intrinsically curious and always up for a challenge say "this doesn't feel right," it's probably not.

LouHoffman
LouHoffman

@Frank_Strong The Mid East is complicated. The issue of journalists being accountable for "story context" seems straight forward to me.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Frank_Strong what a great comment Frank! and thank you for your service. We assassinated the first democratically elected president in the mid-east over oil (Iran) in the 50's. They have hated us every since. We have done horrible things as a nation over the years in the name of money, land etc. In fact we fail to accept this as a nation. From South America to how we took over our lands here. From slavery to the fact we refused to allow equal rights for another 100 years. We have supported heinous dictators in the name of stopping communism.

I just read an Economist article about Al-Queda rising again and since the Arab Spring has led to so much disillusionment they actually are saying maybe time to focus on stability vs freedom again. And the reason is because they feel the pyscho jihadists are growing again. But then the christian far right isn't that different than the taliban in some ways (no they don't do honor rapes and beheadings) in terms of telling you how to live and of you don't live their way you go to hell. But we forget until 1600 those same far right Christians did kill non-believers. Just because Islam is 400 years behind doesn't mean they won't get to a better place.

So tying this all in I agree about Putin and big PR firms if they can help us get honest viewpoints from other sources it would be a good thing. We bash on North Korea yet having nukes has been the one deterrent for a US invasion (or Russian etc). If Dennis Rodman came back and said listen...this guy might be crazy but he goes to bed crying and wetting his pants worried we are coming with planes and tanks and he feels this is the only solution to keep his power....and we all see every day in our country and outside what egomaniacs do to keep it.....we might feel differently. So while Putin came across as smug and a liar because of his own oppressions I am happy the Times printed his OpEd for me to read.

But to be honest our news orgs should be pursuing this stuff all the time.

As for Ryan Holiday another reason I dislike him is he is on the Breitbart team of creating false/misleading videos and stories to pursue an oppressive cause. Its sad because I won't buy American Apparel now which sucks because it is made in America but all because they employed him.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@LouHoffman This is such an interesting debate to have. What I find most fascinating is places such as ProPublica are coming down on PR firms about this, but not on the media. I've never done business where a journalist doesn't know who our client is, but then I don't do astroturfing or whisper campaigns. Kind of amazing.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@susancellura I don't know the right answer. I sat on this for two weeks because I'm sitting on the fence about it all. But I do know I would never pitch a story without saying who the client is. I guess THAT is the real line - when you're doing a whisper campaign or spinning the truth, you're less willing to share who the client is.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ClayMorgan So my thoughts:

1) Most organizations can't get a story in the NYT, but I'd be wiling to guess they'd take a call from Putin's office without the PR firm.

2) This is a good question. We write stuff for clients all the time. They review and approve it, but it does lead to the debate about ghost authoring things for executives.

3) I don't know the right answer to that. Yes?

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

@Howie Goldfarb @Frank_Strong I would rather see what Putin thinks when he writes in Russian than when someone crafts a piece and puts his name on it.

Show me a country that doesn't have blood on its hands. Show me a country that doesn't have a laundry list of things to be called on the carpet for.

Now show me the countries where you can publicly call the government to question and not worry about what happens afterwards. There are a bunch of them but you won't find very men in certain parts of the world.

Baby Assad isn't doing anything his father didn't do before him. Hafez was just as bad, if not worse.

Some ideologies are morally superior and some are inferior to others. But we live during a time when it is hard to say anything like that because you can use social media to lambast someone for disagreeing with you.

Fortunately it is also a time of short attention spans so if you say look at this, is so shiny people forget what you were talking about.

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

@Howie Goldfarb  Well Howie, you are right. America is not perfect. But I'm grateful that you can express your views without fear of reprisal. And I would not fault you for hiring a PR firm to help you express your views more broadly, which is the point I think we are both making.  I'm off to read your most recent post now. 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@ginidietrich  @LouHoffman media sells out for the story as well. Especially if it is easy gravy and some fame for the writer. but when discovered you lose credibility. Fox News easily could be credible with the same right wing view. But then Jon Stewart is out of business.

The National Enquirer proved we don't want the truth. We pay for sensation even if it is a lie. And many news orgs make more money that way. Very sad. Blame the consumer of the media as well!

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makasha
makasha

@DanielleGross @ClayMorgan @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I totally agree Danielle. As a PR person, we help our clients with messaging. As long as I write the opt ed based on the client's ideals and the client approves the piece then it falls on the good side of things. However, making up fake personas is very, very bad. 

DanielleGross
DanielleGross

@ClayMorgan @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I don't think the average person could even score a placement in a top paper in their home state, let alone a national paper. 

and @ClayMorgan in my experience with state lawmakers, most do not write their own LTEs/opinion pieces. Neither do most business owners or association leaders. 


PR person here, but I don't see an ethical problem with ghostwriting as long as the PR person discloses to the writer their client/angle, and lets them review/change the opinion piece before the signer submits the letter on his or her own.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@wbsmith200 Ah! We're hosting right now, but you can always register and have the recording sent to you.

wbsmith200
wbsmith200

@ginidietrich I'm looking forward to that class. In the meantime I have to click on that SEO Webinar link.

Trackbacks

  1. […] PR podcast, Martin Waxman, Gini Dietrich and Joseph Thornley tackle an issue raised byGini in a post on Spin Sucks: disclosure by PR agencies of business interest in media relations pitches. Gini kicks off the […]

  2. […] unless it’s clearly disclosed. And, ProPublica just came out against the New York Times for not disclosing who helped them with the President Putin editorial (hint: It was […]