What happens when feds, the media and advertisers have dinner?

A recent misstep by the Washington Post could lead to tighter rules for feds attending events with corporate sponsorship.

I spent some time on vacation last week, but couldn’t escape the painful exegesis of the whole Washington Post salon series episode.

For those of you just returning to DC, the short version is the publisher of the Washington Post decided to host a series of dinners bringing together editors and reporters from the newsroom, policy makers from Capitol Hill, officials from the Obama administration for a series of off the record conversations. The first was going to be on health care, certainly a hot topic. Oh, and there would be an industry sponsor who would receive some kind of special access.

It was painful for a lot of reasons. First, it’s hard to believe that anyone who has been in this market for as long as the Post has would not know better or have better controls. The Post has spent many years pointing out the shortcomings of others, and there are many who are delighted to return the favor.

Painful, also, because I’m sure we are all going to pay for this mistake. The White House just this afternoon reminded all members of government of the rules for attending events sponsored by non-government entities. I am confident there will be more guidance and tighter rules.

I actually think we need more conversations and dinners between government and industry, not fewer. But that might be a hard sell for a while.

The last time I remember a similar controversy was the whole CISO Exchange issue. It also involved policy makers, government officials and industry executives who paid a fee to attend. Despite some very high level participants, the plan collapsed when the details of industry participation, which was characterized as pay-to-play came out.

To be fair, this is a variation of a model called the “hosted event,” which is common in industry. Gartner does a version of it, as does Marcus Evans. Companies pay a fee -- anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000 -- for a sponsorship and are guaranteed a certain number of interviews with the targeted audience. In this market, that doesn’t work because you may have a government executive sit down for a conversation with a company bidding on a contract in his/her agency.

IRMCO, ELC and our own Government Leadership Summit have multiple sponsors precisely to avoid the appearance of preferred access.

The Fishbowl DC Web site notes that in the wake of the Washington Post incident, David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, decided to send a memo to his employees defending the company’s practice of sponsored dinners. You can read that here.

So, while I think we need more openness, conversation and access, I’m guessing that we are going to find it difficult in the near future. Episodes like Salon-gate always lead to tightening of the rules and nervousness on the part of government folk who are concerned they could end up the target of an ambitious member of the House.

Full disclosure—Washington Technology does a dinner series, in which the editor and I lead a discussion with industry executives on topics of interest. There are no Hill or government people present, and it is designed to improve our coverage of the issues in the SI community.