Public relations firms that are paid millions of dollars a year by the federal government to promote programs and policies are worried the money might dry up because of the Armstrong Williams flap at the Department of Education.
A deluge of government business in recent years has helped make Washington a growing market for public relations firms. To protect that market, PR executives are voicing their objections to that kind of deal, in which the commentator was paid to tout Bush administration education policy in television and radio appearances.
Judith T. Phair, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, said in a statement that her organization "strongly objects to any paid endorsement that is presented as objective news coverage and is not fully disclosed. Such practices are clearly contrary to the PRSA Member Code of Ethics."
Louis Capozzi, chief executive of Manning Selvage & Lee, said federal contracts "are an important part of our firm's business and an important part of most large public relations firm's businesses. There are a lot of multimillion-dollar contracts out there."
PR shops have federal contracts to promote some of the government's most familiar programs. Manning Selvage & Lee, a New York-based unit of Publicis Group, for instance, is paid for a nationwide program that encourages preteens to become physically active and to help recruit soldiers for the U.S. Army and Army Reserve.
PR executives do not want to see those government dollars disappear. And they should not, they argue, because two industry ethics codes forbid paying journalists to advocate a point of view on news programs. They say such infractions are rare.
That is the sort of deal that the Education Department, through a contract with Ketchum Inc., had with Williams, a conservative black commentator who is a frequent guest on CNN and has his own syndicated radio show.
Williams was paid $240,000 to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law and did not disclose the contract when talking about the law during cable television appearances or writing about it in his newspaper column. He has acknowledged "bad judgment" but has declined to return the money.
"The idea of paying a journalist to make a statement for a client is misleading at best, if not downright deceptive," said Stanley Collender, general manager of Financial Dynamics in the District. "I wouldn't do it."
"Our business is much more ethical than that," Capozzi said. "I'd hate to see our profession tarred by this brush."
Already, however, the industry is caught in the sort of political firestorm that one of its member firms might typically help a client in crisis deal with.
The Williams controversy was magnified by earlier revelations that the Education Department had paid Ketchum to rate journalists on how positively or negatively they reported on No Child Left Behind and to produce a video news release on the law that was used by some TV stations as if it were real news.
Other government agencies, including the Census Bureau, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services, have distributed such prepackaged videos, a practice that congressional auditors have described as illegal propaganda in some cases.
The news about the Williams deal, coming on top of the other incidents, triggered a slew of accusations and investigations last week.