Bush agencies place crooked consultants in charge of DTV information campaign

by Bob Williams, Hear Us Now

There are times when killing the messenger -- or rather the messaging consultant -- might be the best thing for everyone involved.

Case in point: the peculiar decision by the federal bureaucrats in charge of educating the public on the looming transition to digital television to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to hire the ethically-challenged Ketchum Communications Inc. as their communications and "messaging" guru.

Ketchum, you may recall, was at the center of two of worst government public relations debacles in recent memory.

It was Ketchum that funneled $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to syndicated television and radio host Armstrong Williams in exchange for his touting of the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program a few years ago. Williams did not disclose the contract to his viewers or readers.

Ketchum was also behind so-called “video news releases” about the No Child Left Behind program in which a public relations executive named Karen Ryan posed as a news reporter. Those VNRs, which were picked up and used by media outlets across the country without any editing or identification of origin, were funded by the Department of Education through a contract with Ketchum. Click here for more information on the incidents.

Ketchum was widely condemned for both episodes, even drawing fire from some of its fellow powerhouse public relations firms. The incidents also touched off a larger debate on whether the VNRs, the Williams contract and similar PR tactics were, in actuality, nothing more than taxpayer-funded government propoganda.

Given the national uproar, it’s hard to imagine the contracting officials at the two agencies in charge of the digital television transition -- the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration -- were unaware of Ketchum’s previous government-financed PR catastrophes.

But wait, it gets worse.

The FCC itself conducted an official investigation of the Williams episode, concluding the failure to disclose the government’s contract with the television and radio host was a violation of the law.

And it gets worse still.

During recent congressional hearings, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin highlighted the $1.7 million Ketchum contract as evidence the agency was doing a good job on getting the word out about the digital TV transition. Click here to read Martin’s full testimony.

Last month the FCC quietly posted Ketchum’s plan for the agency’s digital television transition education effort on the agency’s web site. Click here to read the plan.

Incredibly, one of Ketchum's primary recommendations was the preparation and distribution of a half dozen of what the PR calls “Drop-In Article/Matte Releases,” which are -- for all practical purposes -- merely a print press version of the widely condemned VNRs.

Ketchum describes them as “a formatted, consumer-related article provided to an approved vendor for distribution to key newspapers across the country. These media tools allow your message to be disseminated unfiltered by commentary.”

Like VNRs, the matte releases are predicated on the fact that newsrooms are understaffed and willing to publish such content -- unedited, uncredited and unchallenged.

“Newspaper editors normally use matte releases to supplement staff-written stories to fill soft news sections of the paper,” said Ketchum. ”These can be targeted to specific populations or provided in languages other than English to reach specific segments of the target audience.”

Ketchum recommended six matte releases: two targeting the general audience, two targeting the African American audience and two targeting the Hispanic audience.

To its credit, the FCC this week rejected Ketchum’s matte release recommendation, according to Communications Daily, an industry newsletter.

Still, knowing what they had to know about Ketchum’s past shenanigans on taxpayer-funded PR efforts, it's incomprehensible that the FCC awarded the company a contract for perhaps the most critical element of the digital TV transition public education program.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration needs to be asked the same question.

Both agencies owe a speedy and lucid explanation of the Ketchum contract to the millions of consumers/taxpayers who will be dealing with the digital TV transition in the coming months.

Bi-Partisan Group of Senators Ask NTIA to Loosen DTV Converter Box Coupon Rules

In a bit of good news for consumers, a bi-partisan group of senators is asking NTIA to loosen up the rules on the agency's digital TV converter box coupon program.

Currently, the $40 government coupons, which are issued as part of $1.5 billion program run by NTIA, expire 90 days after they are issued, with no option of replacement or reissue. Coupons issued to consumers who applied when the program began earlier this year have started expiring, even though many converter box models have yet to reach store shelves.

In a letter sent yesterday to NTIA Acting Director Meredith Baker, the 11 senators said they are "concerned that situations may arise where consumers are unable to use their coupons because boxes are regionally unavailable." The senators urge NTIA to allow consumers with expired coupons to reapply so that coupons may be reissued, funds permitting.

In addition, the senators urge NTIA to "examine novel approaches to ensure consumers are able to purchase the approved converter boxes of their choice, even when there is a temporary shortage. To this end, NTIA should consider allowing consumers to apply their coupons to pre-orders of converter boxes that are out of stock or not yet available in stores."

These are all excellent suggestions, which we hope NTIA will move to adopt without delay.

article originally published at http://www.consumersunion.org/blogs/hun/2008/05/now_hear_this_newsletter_may_8_1....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey