Full disclosure?

drawing_hands-468x400When NBC was owned by General Electric and network anchors or reporters filed stories on GE, their words were always preceded by a disclaimer: “The General Electric Corporation, NBC’s parent company, today announced…”

That’s responsible journalism. It served as a caveat to the viewer, reader or listener that the story they were about view, read or hear might, in some small way, have been influenced by GE.

I raise the issue of responsible journalism and transparency because both were missing in action during the coverage of last week’s Putin/Ketchum imbroglio.

Allow me to elaborate. Both leading PR trade journals published opinion pieces on the subject.

One went back-and-and-forth on the ethics and business realities faced by a firm that was retained by a powerful foreign government. The analysis ended with quite a homage to Ketchum: “…when all is said and done, there’s no doubt Ketchum did a good job in maximizing impact of the op-ed via the placement in the Times.”

The other trade’s opinion piece was more direct, and asked “Did Ketchum do all it could to vet the content of the op-ed?” suggesting the agency may have looked the other way more than once as Russia’s violated countless civil rights and engaged in armed conflict around it borders.

Neither opinion really matters, though, because neither publication was transparent about their dealings with Ketchum.

It seems to me that fair, balanced and objective journalism could be influenced by the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid by Ketchum to each publication for advertising, consulting, sponsorships and, of course, multiple tables at awards banquets. I’m not suggesting the integrity of either piece was affected by the financial transactions, but shouldn’t readers be told of their existence?

There’s anything wrong with global agencies spending their marketing dollars with leading trade journals. But, when one of the large agencies suddenly becomes front-page news, I do think it’s incumbent upon any media property that subsequently provides analysis to disclose the financial relationship that exists between the two parties. That’s responsible journalism. That would tell an informed reader that maybe, just maybe, the trade journal is cutting some slack to the large advertiser.

I’ve had the good fortune to contribute content to the Page Turner, the official blog of The Arthur W. Page Society.

Since its creation, the Page Society has advocated for the role of the chief communications officer and the need for full transparency in communications. I suggest Page President, Roger Bolton, invite the editors of both publications to explain why they should, or shouldn’t, disclose the monies they earn from an agency  (or corporation that they then analyze in an opinion piece).

It seems to me that, when it comes to walking the talk and dispensing advice, our trade journals need to play by the same rules of full transparency as the players in the field they cover.

6 thoughts on “Full disclosure?

  1. Zing! Good for you, Gordon. In fact, you’re far better off not caring about the opinions of PR trades. As an agency principal, though, it’s part of my responsibility to know what’s being said, and by whom. And, since ours is such a small world, who spends what money with which trade does matter (from a transparency standpoint). ‘Nuff said.

  2. I appreciate the comment, Gordon, and would agree IF we were speaking about news reporting. We aren’t. These were opinion pieces that analyzed the “ethics” of an agency that pays each trade a handsome sum of money each, and every, year. Responsible journalism dictates the media property disclose such a financial arrangement. To do otherwise is midleading, if not ingenuous.

    • On that basis, Steve, every time the Wall Street Journal mentions JP Morgan in an editorial, they would need to disclose that the bank is a big advertiser. But I think where we REALLY differ on this issue is that I have zero interest in the opinions of the PR trade pubs on any topic. In fact, I’m not a subscriber. Cheers.

  3. Not sure the NBC / GE analogy applies here. There’s a big difference between the need for a news source owned by a large public corporate entity to disclose a potential conflict, and the need for a news source to disclose a potential conflict because they’re covering an advertiser. In running the Putin piece, the “rules of transparency” did not require the New York Times to disclose that Russia is a revenue source, and would be publishing an 8-page advertorial section a few days later. Whether it’s the New York Times or PR trade publications, we expect that these news sources will honor their 4th Estate role, and if they violate the rules of editorial integrity there’s a bigger price to be paid. They lose their credibility and their franchise.

  4. Thanks, Ronn. I wasn’t suggesting any favoritism. Just requesting full disclosure. The trades need to play by the same rules they hold PR firms accountable for.