Ketchum’s ill-fated attempt to trick bloggers into thinking they were getting haute cuisine when they were really getting ConAgra frozen food, covered extensively in yesterday’s New York Times by Andrew Newman, has received muted criticism from PR Society of America.

Chair Rosanna Fiske earlier this year jumped all over Burson-Marsteller and Facebook when it was revealed that B-M was surreptitiously spreading negatives about Google.

She condemned both in two live interviews with the NYT, saying they violated the “essence of PR code of ethics 101.” She told the Wall Street Journal B-M was guilty of “lack of disclosure” and was “deceptive.” Her quotes were picked up in England and Germany.

Fiske has made it a hallmark of her tenure to denounce any blatant ethical violations by institutions or by PR people whether members or not.

However, yesterday’s NYT article quoted new Ethics Board chair Deborah Silverman of Buffalo State College as saying Ketchum has “an excellent reputation for high ethical standards” and that the trick attempted on bloggers was “unfortunate” and “struck me as being not quite where they should be in terms of honesty.”

Silverman forgot the huge PR imbroglio of 2005 when Ketchum had a $240,000 contract with commentator Armstrong Williams to promote “No Child Left Behind.”

Extra attention is given to ethics matters by PRS this month since it’s “Ethics Month” for members.

Bloggers Got Frozen Foods

Silverman, who succeeded Tom Eppes, told the NYT that social media is a “new territory” for PR pros and “I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”

Newman reported that food bloggers in August were invited to a New York restaurant by chef George Duran, who hosts the “Ultimate Cake Off” on TLC, and were expecting a fresh meal prepared by him.

Instead they got frozen three cheese lasagna and other processed foods while hidden cameras recorded their reactions. The plan was to use the videos on YouTube and on the ConAgra Foods website.

Stephanie Moritz is senior director of PR and social media of ConAgra.

Blogger Cindy Zhou wrote on “Chubby Chinese Girl” that she told her hosts she favored “organic, fresh and good food” but instead was served lasagna that had 860 milligrams of sodium in the 8-ounce serving.”

“They were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it,” she wrote.

Similar comments came from other bloggers who took part in four evenings of food sampling. With negative comments boiling over on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, ConAgra canceled the fifth night.

“Fake Food” Scam Will Get Ink

The ConAgra/Ketchum “fake food” scam, covered in detail by Newman (substituting for regular ad columnist Stuart Elliott), will touch off many an article about PR’s ethical failures and about its lack of any enforcement mechanism.

PRS got out of enforcement in 1999 and last year removed the word “violation” from its bylaws lest anyone think it is ever going to criticize members.

A side issue is that PRS is currently making harsh criticisms of some organizations with alleged ethical violations while ignoring or going lightly on others. Politics seems to be at work.

Ketchum had a $950K contract with the Dept. of Education that said Williams was to “utilize his long term relationship with America’s Black Forum, where he appears as a guest commentator, to encourage the producers to periodically address the NCLB Act (67 million viewers; reach 87% of urban market).” (link, sub req'd)

Among the many articles that appeared was a 3,003-word piece that led the Feb. 13, 2005 Sunday business section of the NYT by Timothy O’Brien titled “Spinning Frenzy: PR’s Bad Press.”

No one from Ketchum or parent company Omnicom would talk to O’Brien.

He wrote that the controversy came at a time when PR pros “are scrambling to adjust to the internet revolution and a boom in alternative media sources…”

He quoted Brenda Wrigley, PR professor at Syracuse University, as saying “PR has a PR problem.”

Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum then and now, said in 2005 that “There is no indication that it was ever the intent of Ketchum or any of our people to mislead anyone.”

Ketchum a Major PRS Supporter

Ketchum for many years has been a major supporter and participant in PRS activities, and has received scores of Silver Anvils.

It worked with Braun Research on the member survey that was revealed recently by Fiske. Blogger Bob Conrad criticized Fiske’s presentation of the research and especially her comment that the research shows members are “extremely satisfied.”

Answering this criticism on Conrad’s blog, Fiske said the research shows members are “quite satisfied.” Conrad did not like this, either, saying the fact that only 56% of members are “satisfied” is not something to brag about. Another statistic was the only one in five lapsed members would renew.

He has asked Fiske for what percent replied to questions sent to them by e-mail but has yet to receive an answer. If too few replied, he said, the research’s findings would only be “anecdotal” and not scientific.

Ketchum, as of 2004, had won 89 Silver Anvil awards of PRS, far more than most firms. Only one other firm at that time, Fleishman-Hillard, had won more than10.

Silver Anvil rules call for equal emphasis on what are said to be the four major elements of a PR program—“research, strategy, execution and post-research.” PRS advice to participants says “Clips only = loser,” “Don’t expect clips to win,” and “More research, fewer clips.”

Ketchum’s PRS membership totaled 79 in 2001 but that was cut to 22 in 2004 and is currently 25.

Among members are Kotcher, president Robert Flaherty, senior counsel John Paluszek (president of PRS in 1989), and Mindy Rubinstein, director of corporate communications.

Ketchum for many years was the biggest advertiser in Society publications, taking 12 consecutive right hand pages in the December 1987 PR Journal.

It is a sponsor of the 2011 annual conference in Orlando.