Every PR firm—including ours—is taking a closer look at the way it operates with clients as a result of the sad saga of commentator Armstrong Williams. He was found to have received a previously undisclosed $240,000 payment from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the “No Child Left Behind” initiative. As reported recently in the New York Times, the plan was orchestrated by a well-known national public relations firm, and the newspaper cites it as an example of the increasing pressure on PR agencies—especially those swept up in acquisitions by marketing conglomerates—to boost the bottom line.

The fact is that contracts with clients these days are much more project oriented than open-ended and are subject to change. Moreover, clients are putting pressure on agencies to reduce their fees while the big advertising/PR/design/technology consortiums are pushing them to bring in more dollars. Public relations firms need to structure themselves for this new reality and, most important, should be working with their clients to set some guidelines regarding disclosure of arrangements with third-party spokespersons.

Early on in an engagement, the client and the agency need to talk about plans, strategy and budget but also their approaches to implementation and the level of disclosure that is required. Agencies should ask their clients and prospects three key questions:

  • What are your business values as they relate to ethical practices?
  • What is your attitude toward public disclosure of paid or otherwise-recruited sources?
  • Who has the final say in determining the ethics of a PR strategy or tactic?

Too much is assumed by both clients and agencies; they need to discuss what their actions mean from an ethical standpoint.

Independent PR firms often have greater discretion in the clients they choose to represent, the way they staff and the way they plan for profitability, without struggling against the demands of a larger group. Independent and affiliated public relations firms alike, however, can be as effective as other marketing media in stimulating purchase and preference. PR is not different from advertising in getting information out to allow people to make a decision, and it shouldn’t be considered different from other marketing services. It’s become very important to brand support, and therefore we’re subject to the same push-and-pull pressures.

One way to avoid much of the potential for conflict of interest and at the same time better control your company’s message is to create your own media. The major news publications and broadcast news departments are not the only ways to reach your audience. In fact, they “filter” your communications so that often you aren’t able to transmit your total message to your publics. By creating your own print or online publications, email programs and even Internet broadcasts, you can target your specific marketplace—employees, customers, peers—with a complete message, clearly identified in its source.

However you decide to maintain contact with your market, the only payoff that corporations and their PR firms should be considering is the impact of their words, not their wallets.

— Lisa Vallee-Smith