Third Party Technique
Like much news that's damaging to the Bush administration, the report came out on a Friday.
Since then, it's gotten little media attention -- just 41 mentions in U.S. newspapers and wire stories, according to a news database search on October 11. That's remarkably sparse coverage for a story showing that the U.S. government has been engaged in illegal propaganda aimed at its own citizens.
"The Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party," ruled the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO report, "the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities," found that the Department of Education contract with the Ketchum PR firm violated the ban on "covert propaganda." Objectionable activities include a video news release where PR flack Karen Ryan says the Bush tutoring program "gets an A-plus"; news monitoring to determine whether stories agree that "the Bush administration / the G.O.P. is committed to education"; and Armstrong Williams' newspaper columns and television spots praising the No Child Left Behind Act, without disclosing that he was paid by the Education Department. The GAO doesn't have enforcement powers, but reports to the White House and Congress.
An "angry op-ed" in the Dallas Morning News claimed the city's school system was "limiting the future and opportunities for our children" by not enacting policies mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law more quickly.
"McDonald's had a great story to tell, and we weren't telling it," said Mike Donahue, McDonald's U.S. communications head. In 2002, Donahue "held a summit of the 125 PR firms that work with McDonald's and its various owner-operators," encouraging them to promote company-financed studies on the chain's positive economic impact.
This spring, the Dr. Pepper company recruited bloggers to talk up "Raging Cow," a flavored-milk drink. "The company hoped to work up Internet buzz about the beverage - and it was OK, by the way, if the bloggers didn't mention that Dr Pepper had given them freebies and flown them to Dallas for a pep session," writes James Hebert, who examines several examples of the old PR trick of "getting a supposedly independent third party to tout your product."
Pakistan's recent contract with Stirling Consulting for "media relations" work will include dealing with negative media stories, "stimulating" pro-Pakistan letters-to-the-editor, and enlisting Pakistani-American "message surrogates," Working for Change columnist Bill Berkowitz writes. "Recruiting 'message surrogates' is a classic example of what in PR lingo is called 'the third party technique,'" PR Watch's Sheldon Rampton told Berkowitz.