There's an old PR trick that if bad news can't be suppressed, its release should be stalled until late on a Friday afternoon or just before a holiday break. It's a trick that served the U.S. Department of Education well when, late on Friday April 15, it released its Office of Inspector General's damning final report into the $240,000 Armstrong Williams contract to promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.
The strategy behind the late Friday afternoon news dump is simple: most media outlets will be squeezed for space to cover a late-breaking story, looming deadlines will ensure harried journalists don't have time to get much further than the executive summary, and by the time Monday rolls around, it will be seen as stale news by editors with the attention span of a gnat.
Reading the 20-page report, which was prompted by Greg Toppo's exposé on the Williams contract in USA Today, it's easy to see why the Education Department wanted to bury it. The report chronicles the deception, bungling and mismanagement behind the Williams contract.
While newspapers such as the Washington Post, L.A. Times, New York Times, and USA Today covered the Education Department report, most of the finer detail went unreported. (Surprisingly, none added a link on their websites to the actual report.)
Money for jam
According to the report, in 2003 the Education Department's Office of Public Affairs (OPA) was under "a lot of pressure from 'The Hill' and the White House to effectively communicate information" on NCLB.
The department decided it needed a long-term PR strategy but, with limited internal capacity, turned to PR firms for assistance. Just before Christmas 2003, the department called for proposals. Within three weeks, five PR firms had submitted bids.
Just over four months later, Ketchum was awarded the $100,000+ a year contract. The firm's victory was due to its "specific experience working on NCLB issues," according to the report. (In 2003, Ketchum won a $700,000 contract to do "rankings of newspaper coverage of the No Child Left Behind law" and to produce a video news release touting NCLB.)
While the new contract with Ketchum was being finalised, Williams scented an opening. (He would later describe himself as an "opportunist," during a meeting with the Education Department's Office of Inspector General.) Williams submitted a proposal from his PR firm, the Graham Williams Group (GWG), to then-Education Secretary Rod Paige.
"Williams indicated the GWG was attempting to use available opportunities to gain business, and had issued proposals to other Government agencies as well," the report states. Which other agencies Williams approached, or whether he succeeded in winning any other government contracts, is not clarified.
The report does, however, cite an undated GWG proposal on NCLB that proclaims, "Having contacts with people who influence local and national opinion will pay off by getting you at least balanced coverage of what could be a nasty defensive PR situation."
Williams' proposal went on to state, "GWG can help win the battle for media space by drawing upon our long-standing relationships with The Russ Par radio show, Stevie Wonder’s KJLH (CA), and Sinclair broadcasting (which owns 63 network affiliates) and America's Black Forum (which has been carried by network affiliates for over 25 years), to promote [NCLB]."
"We will utilize that platform to further educate the public on the benefits of this important reform. These favorable commentaries will amount to passive endorsements from the media outlets that carry them - media outlets that speak most directly and potentially to the African American and broader community," continued the GWG proposal.
Despite the proposal's candid language - which was later reflected in Ketchum's proposal to the Education Department and, in turn, the department's Statement of Work - Williams told the department's Inspector General that he had raised concerns about the contract's editorial items. "Department and Ketchum representatives did not recall any such conversations taking place," the report states.
Despite internal opposition, the OPA director at the time backed Williams' proposal. In November 2003, Ketchum was informed that the Education Department wanted to shoehorn Williams into their existing contract as a subcontractor.
Ketchum reworked the GWG proposal, but retained plans for Williams to interview department officials as guests on his program and to exploit his relationship with America's Black Forum to encourage favourable coverage of NCLB.
In January 2004, $113,441 was added to the cost of Ketchum's contract, to accommodate Williams as a new subcontractor. Williams' start date was backdated to December 2, 2003.
A hundred thousand dollars might sound like a lot of money to most people, but Williams thought he was doing the department a cut-rate favour. "Mr. Williams indicated to [the Education Department's Office of Inspector General] that the cost associated with the level of services he provided was well below what he would normally charge," the report stated.
In addition to the now-notorious covert editorial scamming, GWG's initial contract required that two television and two radio ads be produced, over a six month period.
By May 2004, Ketchum and Williams were back with a bid for the contract's extension. Ketchum's revised proposal recommended "developing commentary for several African American newspapers," in addition to the other NCLB promotion, according to the report.
Deputy OPA director D.J. Nordquist and then-chief of staff to the Education Secretary, Ann Radice, opposed the Ketchum/Williams proposal. Both suggested the Statement of Work be withdrawn. However, their concerns, along with advice from the department's Deputy General Consul, were brushed aside. By late June, a further $139,490 had been allocated for Williams' PR.
The implementation of Williams' outreach program can only be described as a debacle. According to the report, there were no agreed standards to measure the campaign's performance or effectiveness. Nor had the Education Department made any attempt to assess whether the GWG proposal "offered the best value to the Government."
Furthermore, the ads - which were handled by GWG subsidiary Right Side Productions - weren't even being directed to the target audience. "Neither the Department nor Ketchum identified indicators that the demographic makeup of the GWG audience was not consistent with the audience targeted by the Department," the report noted.
The report pointed out that, while the television ads were supposed to reach the parents of economically disadvantaged children, the GWG proposal described Right Side Productions' audience as "sophisticated and affluent people who surround themselves with the finer things in life" and who have "uncompromising taste and spending power."
In fact, neither the Education Department nor Ketchum had a system in place to check whether the promised ads were even aired. Although Right Side Productions' invoices provided no details of services rendered, the department paid them without question.
The second contract, issued in June 2004, listed radio ads as a "deliverable." However, Williams' radio show had ended in May 2004 - a fact neither Ketchum nor the Education Department were aware of. Williams claims he informed both Ketchum and the department, but "no officials of Ketchum or the Department recalled these conversations," according to the report.
The department didn't raise any concerns about Williams' list of "168 activities other than ads" in activity reports on his NCLB promotion, "including appearances on television programs other than his own, speeches, and published works."
Even more astonishing was that one of the television ads Williams billed the department for "appears" to have been a recycled public service announcement done by the Education Department itself in October 2003. "The Department appears to have subsequently paid for something it had already substantially produced itself," concluded the report.
Believe it or not, the story gets worse. According to the report, one radio ad "appears to be the audio track from the television ad." Other ads Williams was obliged to produce "were never completed." While GWG was paid to produce new television ads under the second contract, an ad completed under the first contract was reused instead. "Full ad production costs were billed and paid by the Department, even though the Department only received two of the eight ads it was supposed to receive under both work requests," the report states.
In its conclusion, the report states, "The Department has paid $188,500 to date under the two work requests with the GWG, a portion of which was for ads that were never produced, as well as ads that were of poor quality, airtime for which it has no assurance was actually utilized, and a target audience that was most likely never reached."
An accountability problem
In an interview with the New York Times, Williams said he was glad the report had been released. "Hopefully we can just put it behind us. No hard feelings," he suggested.
No hard feelings? Of course Williams, the self-described "opportunist," has no hard feelings about his fleecing U.S. taxpayers. Undoubtedly, he would prefer that everyone forget the whole saga - and forget that he, Ketchum and the Education Department have yet to be held accountable.
Other important issues remain. The report didn't address whether the Williams/Ketchum contracts breached the ban on government-funded propaganda - that question's been left to the Government Accountability Office.
While the report reveals Williams as the instigator of the deal who then failed to meet obligations, Ketchum is hardly exonerated. Ketchum agreed to Williams' covert dual role as commentator and PR flack. As lead contractor, the firm also had responsibility to oversee Williams' work.
In late January 2005, at the height of the Williams controversy, Ketchum released a statement announcing its new policy covering contracts involving spokespeople, new ethical standards for subcontractors, and the launch of an internal investigation by an external legal adviser. (Surprise, surprise - the statement isn't available on Ketchum's website.) More than three months later, no specific details have been revealed about any of these commitments.
Lastly, there is the not-insignificant matter of $188,500 in public funds paid out under the $240,000 contract. The report's final recommendation to the department is that funds be recovered, "if appropriate, for deliverables that were paid for but never received." Current Education Secretary Margaret Spellings endorsed this recommendation in her response to the report's damning findings.
No hard feelings? Sorry, Armstrong - this breach of public trust is too severe to allow you, Ketchum and the U.S. government to emerge unscathed, ready to resume covertly moulding public opinion.