Williams, paid coverage and PR firms

When a PR firm pays off a commentator, who should be upfront in revealing that information? The commentator, or the firm? Or both? We all know what's been happening with Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who was paid by Ketchum speak in favour of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

But shouldn't the PR firm be held somewhat accountable for chasing a contract that blatantly violates journalistic norms and the PRSA code of ethics? Apparently not. The President of the Council of Public Relations Firms, Kathy Cripps, told the NYTimes that:

    ""Public relations needs to express total accuracy and truthfulness," Ms. Cripps said. However, she added, referring to Mr. Williams, "it was the spokesperson's responsibility to disclose the affiliation" rather than Ketchum's."

She added that Ketchum hadn't violated the Council's Code of Ethics. Really? How about this part?

    "... To preserve both the reality and the perception of professional integrity, ... the sources of communications and sponsors of activities will not be concealed."

Paul Holmes cut to the chase in his assessment for the NYTimes today:

    "There are absolutely no circumstances under which this can be an acceptable practice. It's a colossal error in judgment. It's wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to begin.

    "This undermines the very value public relations purports to bring to the communication sphere, credibility. And that credibility relies on what people say being earned, not bought."

If you get caught laying a little astroturf, you should probably take some of the grief as well, don't you think?