Something potentially terrible happened to the public relations industry this week.
As New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics reviewed ethics laws, it voted to approve an advisory opinion requiring PR professionals to register as lobbyists when communicating with editorial boards and reporters.
According to PR Week, “(The opinion states) political consultants (and firms) who are paid to help sway public policy—including pitching a client’s position or insight to a reporter for editorial pieces—must disclose the interaction. They must also disclose their clients’ names, fees and additional information about the legislation behind the pitch. The opinion expands the definition of lobbying to include any media relations efforts with an editorial board or reporter.”
The opinion had a disclaimer, saying it wasn’t trying to restrict a reporter’s ability to gather information: “Rather, this is intended to generate transparency in the activities of paid media consultants.”
Under this proposal, media contact by PR people would be monitored by the government. This action has huge implications, including First Amendment rights, journalists’ ability to report the news, and PR professionals’ need to form relationships with journalists.
“This rule would have a tremendous chilling effect on our clients’ ability to communicate with the media and the public,” said Jonathan Rosen, principal of BerlinRosen. “The idea of requiring anyone to have to report to the government before they talk to the press is a very dangerous proposition,” New York Press Association Executive Director Michelle Rea told Crain’s New York Business.
Frank Washkuch wrote in PR Week on Friday: “Forcing consultants to file their interactions with reporters like expense reports will have a chilling effect on…confidentiality. Aides to public officials rely on journalists to protect their identities, or to keep some information entirely off the record. Asking them to confirm on an official document when they talked to a journalist will only turn off the spigot of information reaching the public.”
If this proposal eventually means the PR-to-media relationship becomes legislated, the flow of information from organizations to the public is threatened. And when information is controlled by government, everyone loses. Your thoughts?