A Bloomberg story reminds us why transparency is an imperative for ethical communication–but sometimes a bad thing for public relations companies who might rather not tell us that they are working for governments that would not allow them to exercise the same freedoms they have in the United States.
The reporters searched federally required disclosure forms by Ketchum Inc. and other public relations companies to track their work done on behalf of the Russian Federation. Ketchum, which owns a PR firm in Russia, has brought in more than $10 million from the federation and Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas pipeline. (Here’s the latest six-month form from Ketchum, which is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.)
The Bloomberg story noted how RussiaToday — a site built by Ketchum for the Russian Federation — doesn’t set an agenda that would have readers think about “anything on the violence in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin testing his military’s combat readiness, or his government’s crackdown on the press.”
Instead, the site is filled with content such as a feature about a Russian literary celebration in London (with no mention of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) and entire section called “Policy Initiatives” (with no mention of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine, and remarkably limited mentions of Ukraine on the site since 2013). A run through the site feels like its target audience is amnesiacs who don’t follow the news and don’t mind drowning in vatrushka filling.
The PR industry’s business of representing people, groups and governments with bad reputations is nothing new, and part of their job description. Working for the Russian Federation ties into PR founding father Edward Bernays’ use of the word “counsel” to compare what lawyers do in representing clients in court with PR practitioners representing clients in the marketplace of ideas.
But as we note in Chapter 9 of Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications, the analogy fall short:
The “PR practitioners-are-like-lawyers” comparison ultimately fails, however. “Discovery” rules require lawyers to provide evidence to their opponents; no such rule exists in public relations. The reality is that the court of public opinion has no guarantee that adversaries will square off and exchange comprehensive truths, and an impartial judge will oversee the process. Just as a lawyer has no obligation to be considerate of the weaknesses of his courtroom opponents, so the public relations person can clearly claim it is another’s obligation to provide countering messages. The egoistic public relations professional will likely cherish the situation in which opposition remains silent; the more socially conscious one will welcome fair competition. (p. 276).
A new edition of the book would add another point: While the history of PR has been one of the “unseen hand” that manipulates public opinion, lawyers must sign their names to the work they file in public courts. Ketchum’s puts its name on the “About Us” page — but never says it’s a PR firm, has no hyperlink to its site and no mention that the Russian Federation is a client.
This story is among several that have questioned Ketchum’s ties to the Russian Federation and work on Putin’s behalf. Bloomberg quoted several professors to make other points in its story, including those who noted the vital need for a free marketplace of ideas – but that PR firms also must serve as a conscience to their clients.
Syracuse’s Guy Golan goes even further, noting that many in the public would take a dim view of Ketchum having contracts with both the U.S. and Russian governments: “I wouldn’t give Ketchum an A+ for ethics.”
To its credit, and unlike most other PR firms working for Russia, Ketchum commented about its relationship with the Russian Federation. A spokeswoman repeated the talking points from March 2014, when other media questioned the company’s ties to Russia. The Ketchum party line: It advises on “economic development and investment,” not “foreign policy or the Ukraine crisis.” Furthermore, Ketchum “is complying with sanctions.”
But if Bernays were with us, he might say those talking points are differences without distinction. In his 1965 Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays, he tells the story of a 1933 dinner where he learned that Nazi propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels “was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.”
This is not to say that the Russian Federation and Nazi Germany are the same. Still, it is worth noting that Bernays likely would have turned down work for Germany’s 1936 Olympics, an event Ketchum might have called an issue of “economic development and investment.” Ketchum and Russia’s 2014 Olympics? See for yourself.by