Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized

By Michelle R. Davis — January 19, 2005 10 min read
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A series of unsavory revelations about the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to sway the public in favor of its major school improvement measure could stain the law’s reputation and cast doubt on future information from the agency, say many observers, including supporters of the law.

In the latest disclosure about the department’s public relations efforts, the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams acknowledged this month that he had accepted some $240,000 in federal money for ads on his syndicated television show and for other help in promoting the No Child Left Behind Act in various forums.

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Delivering the Message

Mr. Williams was a subcontractor under a wide-ranging, at least $700,000 contract between the Education Department and Ketchum Inc., a leading public relations firm based in New York City. Mr. Williams’ contract called for the commentator, who is African-American, to help the department’s outreach to minorities about the school law by providing time for Secretary of Education Rod Paige and other officials on his TV show, and for him to influence other members of the media to give favorable attention to the law.

Disclosure of the deal in a Jan. 7 story in USA Today brought down a torrent of criticism on the department and Mr. Williams.

President Bush said in an interview with USA Today late last week that he had “serious concerns” about the matter.

“All of us, the Cabinet, needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” he told the newspaper.

Education groups were concerned the controversy would taint public opinion about the education initiative itself.

“It tarnishes the Department of Education’s credibility and the particular program this was aimed at,” said Ross Weiner, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that promotes raising achievement for all students and strongly supports the law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda. “This administration knows there are a lot of people who are skeptical of its motivations on No Child Left Behind. All this does is feed that fire of skepticism.”

Secretary Paige called last week for an expedited investigation by the department’s inspector general, but defended the contract in a statement. “All of this has been reviewed and is legal,” the statement said. “However, I am sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses.” The Education Department declined to discuss the matter further.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill called for a variety of investigations. Late last week, Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee that handles education appropriations, asked that the Education Department turn over records of recent public relations contracts.

‘A Con Game’?

The payments to Mr. Williams caused a huge outcry among media-ethics experts, public relations specialists, and education and government groups, among others. But the contract was only the latest example involving the Education Department’s use of questionable public relations tactics to promote the No Child Left Behind Act and other programs.

In 2003, the Ketchum firm produced a “video news release” for the department promoting the federal law. The video package purported to be an independent news report about how many parents give the law “an A-plus, ” with an ersatz news reporter who signed off with, “I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”

An Education Department spokeswoman defended the video news release at the time, saying such packages are “standard PR tools.” Some news shows ran the Ketchum-produced package.

In two recent cases involving video news releases produced elsewhere in the Bush administration, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, has concluded that the packages constituted “covert propaganda” and were illegal under federal law.

At least one other video news release featuring the same narrator, Karen Ryan, purporting to be a reporter has been produced for the Education Department.

Debra Silimeo, a senior vice president at the Washington-based public relations firm Hager Sharp said in an interview that her firm has a five-year contract with the National Center for Education Statistics, the department’s statistical arm, that is worth $700,000 to $800,000 a year. Under that contract, Hager Sharp sent out a video news package regarding math and reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2003.

“A few” stations aired the material, but since the GAO first held last year that federal Medicare video news releases were inappropriate, “we will not do that” again, Ms. Silimeo said.

The original proposal submitted by Ketchum to the Education Department for promoting the No Child Left Behind Act discusses the public relations agency’s extensive experience and promises to help the department with a “solid, evidence-based, cost-effective strategic plan” to meet its “business goals.”

What got more attention when the document was released last year, under a Freedom of Information Act request by the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, was the revelation that as part of the contract, Ketchum was compiling monthly ratings of individual reporters on whether their coverage of the No Child Left Behind Act was favorable or not. (“This Just In: ‘No Child’ Law Works Well, Says Ed. Dept. ‘News’ Video,” Oct. 20, 2004.)

The department itself spent $500,000 in 2003 to hire a “strike team” of political operatives to work solely on publicity surrounding the K-12 education law. (“Ed. Dept. Invests $500,000 In Team to Tout Its Agenda,” May 28, 2003.)

“This just feeds the cynicism that this is all a kind of a con game,” said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private Washington group that monitors the federal government on civil rights issues. Mr. Taylor is a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for greater public school testing and accountability and mandates penalties for schools that fail to meet achievement goals.

“The real question now is, is there going to be buy-in to the whole notion of education reform by the people in the school systems,” he said.

60-Second Ads

In the case involving Mr. Williams, matters seem to have been clouded by the fact that the one-time Republican aide has both a media-punditry career and a public relations business.

Mr. Williams established himself as a prominent black political conservative largely through his role defending Clarence Thomas during the U.S. Supreme Court justice’s combative Senate confirmation hearings in 1991. Mr. Williams had worked for Mr. Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican.

His career as a commentator has included a newspaper column, regular appearances on CNN and elsewhere, and his own syndicated TV show, “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams.”

The show, which is produced by Right Side Productions and airs mainly on small stations around the country, is a subsidiary of Mr. Williams’ Washington-based public relations firm, the Graham Williams Group.

Under the Ketchum contract, the $240,000 subcontract to Mr. Williams primarily paid for two 60-second television ads promoting the No Child Left Behind law to be run on “The Right Side.” The show bought its TV time on some outlets, then recouped the money by selling ad time on its own, a not uncommon arrangement.

The contract also called for Mr. Williams to comment on the No Child Left Behind Act, a program in which he says he was a strong believer, in media appearances elsewhere.

After the contract was revealed by USA Today, Mr. Williams did numerous interviews in which he apologized, repeating the mantra “I used bad judgment.” He said he had disclosed the Education Department paid for the advertisements on his TV show, but did not note the payment in his columns or in other media appearances where the school law came up.

Mr. Williams declined to be interviewed about the flap last week.

On his Web site, he penned an apology, saying that in hindsight the payment “represents an obvious conflict of interests.” But Mr. Williams added: “People have used this conflict of interest to portray my column as being paid for by the Bush administration. Nothing could be further from the truth. … People need to know that my column is uncorrupted by any outside influences.”

Since the arrangement was uncovered, Tribune Media Services has dropped distribution of Mr. Williams’ column, and some TV outlets have ended their relationship with him. Politicians, newspaper editorials, and some groups have called for Mr. Williams to return the money.

However, in a online chat last week on The Washington Post’s Web site, Mr. Williams said he would not refund the payment because he had provided the services called for in the contract.

Paige Responds

Both Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and its ranking Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, have called for investigations by the GAO and the Education Department’s inspector general. Congressional hearings on the matter could surface as well.

In his statement, Mr. Paige said his staff had reviewed the contract and said the money paid to the Graham Williams Group went for the costs of the ads created “and nothing more.” But Mr. Paige did not address the language in the contract calling for Mr. Williams to use his influence in other ways and to make time for officials on his show.

Rep. Miller fired back with a statement calling the deal with Mr. Williams “illegal and unethical.”

“Secretary Paige and President Bush cannot even bring themselves to admit they were wrong, apologize to the taxpayers, and pledge that no such covert propaganda efforts will be conducted again,” the statement said.

Secretary Paige, who is set to leave the department this month to make way for his designated successor, White House policy aide Margaret Spellings, expressed dismay at the furor stemming from the arrangement.

“That a public relations contract has caused the good work of this department to come into question is deeply disturbing to me,” Mr. Paige’s statement said. “And it is certainly not the legacy I wish to leave behind.”

The department did not reply to numerous calls and e-mails last week seeking further comment. Ketchum referred all inquiries to the Education Department.

It remains unclear whether the idea to tap Mr. Williams for a contract to promote the school law originated with Ketchum or with the department. It was also unclear who in the department ultimately gave the go-ahead for it.

Public relations experts say that under such a major contract, Education Department officials would have known the details of the plans to work with Mr. Williams.

“Somebody at the department has to approve it,” said Judith T. Phair, the president of the Public Relations Society of America, a New York City-based organization for the profession. “Certainly, the department would know.”

The Reasonableness Test

Alex S. Jones, the director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, called the arrangement “one of the stupidest public relations moves I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“I find it frightening that the government would have no better judgment than this,” he said. The result, he said, is that information on the No Child Left Behind Act is “compromised and discredited.”

Ms. Phair said the Education Department should be doing mea culpas and admitting to any other questionable public relations arrangements.

Some observers said that not only was it disingenuous for Mr. Williams to pass off his opinions as independent when he was being paid by the department, but that it was a bad investment of taxpayer money to underwrite a supporter of the measure.

“This is sort of an ethically challenged, possibly legally dubious use of public money, but it’s also suspect from a point of view of reasonableness,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “It makes sense that you would try to figure out ways to engage the media, but focusing efforts on the ones already avowedly on your side seems insular.”

But Ms. Phair said the department may have been trying to shore up support. “Much of what Bush did during the election was conserving the base,” she said. “Sometimes you do go after those people who are pretty much on board to make sure they’re solidly behind you.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized


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