This week's controversy over the Department of Education, via Ketchum Communications, paying African-American conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to flog "No Child Left Behind" during his various talking-head appearances comes as little surprise. My hat is off to USA Today for breaking the story. But New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott did the best job of going after PR practitioners. I especially liked how Stuart unearthed damning corporate governance minutia on Ketchum's website that leaves the PR agency little room to wiggle.
Many PR practitioners are weighing in with their indignation. But as a former practitioner myself, and as someone who has seen these things before, let me say this is not new. It's not much different than a pharmaceutical company funding some instant public service entity to warn consumers, for example, about driving after taking cold medicine, only to find out the doctors who run the enterprise and are getting free public service ads are paid by a drug company with a non-drowsy cold medicine. If it looks like duck...
Williams being caught, of course, is made worse by the fact that, as a black conservative media personality, he is the member of a tiny club and looks utterly used by the Bush White House. But, he let it happen to himself.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. An advertising director of a major multi-billion company told me this week that the idea of a separation of church and state--the separarion between the editorial and sales side of magazines and newspapers--is an old fashioned idea. I'm still shivering over that one.