|February 14, 2008|
|SPJ ethics committee warns PR Council/Bulldog to be upfront about shabby publishing venture|
|By Kevin McCauley|
|The ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists has taken a look at the Council of PR Firms’ shady alliance with Bulldog Reporter (sub req'd). The partners plan to publish something that Council chair and Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher calls a “special purpose publication.”|
E.g., a publication formed for the special purpose of diverting eyeballs and sucking ad dollars from legitimate media that cover -- rather than trumpet -- the PR business.
Kotcher is much too coy to suggest that his band of PR firms is getting into the journalism business. It’s more of a self-promotion, publicity, advocacy -- or even the dreaded “spin” -- game. Whatever one calls it, the Council/Bulldog project has a foul odor.
SPJ ethicists warn the soon-to-be-married couple to tread warily and fully disclose all financial arrangements concerning The Weekly Buzz.
This blogger asked Andy Schotz, the Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.) reporter and chairman of SPJ’s ethics unit, to ask committee members about whether they view the hook-up of the Big PR-dominated group and what was thought to be an independent news source as a flat-out conflict of interest. [The Council plans to fork over $85K to Jim Sinkinson’s Bulldog for the first-year of operation. They will split sponsorship and advertising revenues on a 50/50 basis.]
Peter Sussman, who spent 29 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, isn’t sure that the Council/Bulldog pairing is an ethical violation per se -- “it all depends on how this funding source is acknowledged in each issue of The Weekly Buzz.”
Sussman added: “If the readership is not made aware in a meaningful, noticeable and continuing way of the connection between funding source and publication, then that would indeed suggest a conflict of interest.” That is especially true if The Weekly Buzz furthers a Council’s position or point of view.
Irwin Gratz, host of public radio’s “Morning Edition” in Portland, Me., believes the First Amendment gives everyone the right to publish “even if it is a bunch of big shot PR firms who appear to be entering into a financial arrangement with a newsletter so they can put their spin on events.”
Gratz says it is a good ethical practice to make sure readers know where The Weekly Buzz is getting its money from. However, in the case of no disclosure, Gratz said this website has “already taken the other appropriate step: revealing the information on its pages.”
Adrian Uribarri, who is in Tribune Co.’s minority editorial training program, says the issue is whether Bulldog hides the Council deal. If it doesn’t, it is up to readers to decide whether the new publication “is right for them.”
Sara Stone, a journalism professor at Baylor University, asked graduate student Laura Barth, who has a broad knowledge of the PR field, to comment on the Council/Bulldog link.
“It isn’t a good situation,” she said. “Unless they’re going to change the name of the newsletter to The PR Council Reporter, the PR Council shouldn’t be doing this. Having them finance this newsletter will entirely undermine the credibility of both the newsletter and the PR Council firms.
“The PR Council firms should stick to press releases if they want people to know about their clients and not try to disguise their pitching as unbiased news,” wrote Barth.
Amen to that.
We invited Kathy Cripps, president of the Council, to pen an op-ed piece, spelling out why she thinks her group needs a “house organ.”
She promised to do so, and we anxiously wait for her missive.
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