Burson chief throws gasoline on Maddow’s fire

Posted by Dan Keeney

Last week, I reported on Rachel Maddow’s gutting of the public relations profession in general and Burson-Marsteller in particular in the post, “Public relations being hurt by public’s cynicism about business.” Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.

As reported by PR Week, Mark Penn, who heads Burson, issued an internal memo defending the company, its clients and its practices. Okay. Great. Get the facts out to the internals so they know the Company brass is aware of the issue and is acting appropriately.

As many of you are aware, especially in the US, a segment appeared on cable television last night that attacked Burson-Marsteller and the work that we do.  The jumping off point for this commentator was our work for AIG – a company that has certainly been in the news a lot lately.  We are proud to work for AIG – work that has nothing to do with “burnishing their image” but is all about helping this company handle the massive volume of media, government and employee interest in their situation.  It is ironic to me that someone in the media is complaining about attempts by AIG to make sure they have the resources to respond and interact with the media (and other key audiences).  It is the very fact that AIG realizes it has a responsibility, as a recipient of government money, to be as accessible and open as possible in its dealing with external audiences that led them to utilize our media relations services along with that of several other public relations and communications agencies.

Then he goes off the issues management response rails a bit. He says the firm only “works” for one of the companies that Maddow listed in her Thursday night skewering. As in they used to work for the others but they don’t anymore. That’s not much of a defense. Of course, you no longer do crisis work for Three Mile Island. It happened 30 years ago! It would have been so much better if Penn had not suggested that they are innocent because those bad guys aren’t clients any longer. It is so much more powerful to argue that PR plays a role in helping companies be better corporate citizens.

The cable host also reeled off a list of other purported Burson-Marsteller clients of which she was critical.  Of every potential client mentioned, we only work for one — Phillip Morris (now Altria in the U.S.) and our work for them is largely to help with legislatively mandated smoking cessation programs; we do not work on the marketing of cigarettes at all. 

This is disingenuous as well, because Burson most certainly DID do cigarette promotion work previously. I know people who used to be on BM’s Phillip Morris account. Maybe you don’t do it now, but you used to do it. Penn’s insistence that his firm doesn’t work for these clients now or help to market tobacco suggests that he IS embarrassed about the firm’s past work for these clients and their tobacco promoting pedigree. That’s too bad, because I don’t think Burson has anything to be ashamed of. Their work delivers value and helps communities and companies come together. I’m not a smoker and have no tolerance for it, but smokers deserve advocates — as do the bars and restaurants who believe patrons should have a right to smoke. That’s a different story, but suffice it to say that Penn’s weak-kneed defense of the company’s clients and work leaves a lot to be desired.

But that’s not the worst of it. Penn also attacked:

Her commentary also significantly mischaracterized the nature of the firm’s past – for example, we never took a dime from Blackwater.

If that was true, it would be okay. But facts have a funny way of coming back to haunt you. Word of caution for anyone who is having a tit-for-tat with a journalist or media outlet: you better have YOUR facts 100 percent locked down before you accuse THEM of sloppy reporting. Here is Maddow’s Friday commentary:

Here’s a tip for Mark Penn that his leadership team may have been too proud to whisper in his ear last week. Let it be. You don’t want to become the story. Your only concern should be helping to right the ship at AIG. If your firm’s involvement makes it harder for AIG to advance its cause, you should consider extricating yourself from the matter.

After all, it is pretty clear that you will quickly deny any involvement with them in the future anyway.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 at 5:39 pm and is filed under PR Stories, Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Burson chief throws gasoline on Maddow’s fire”

  1. trulee Says:

    Has there ever been a CEO of a PR firm with worse instincts than Mark Penn? Why in the Sam Hill would any client hire a company whose CEO gets worse press than you do, can’t seem to shake the bad press himself, and has been selling clients down the river, one at a time, since last spring in a desperate attempt to right his own boat. Moreover, when is the WSJ going to dump his inane column?

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