The Agency Business:Firms weigh pros and cons of aiding politically divisive clients

The decision to work with a politically divisive client can be a tough one for many firms. But when taking on such clients, it can help to have a bipartisan team in place

The decision to work with a politically divisive client can be a tough one for many firms. But when taking on such clients, it can help to have a bipartisan team in place

All firms must occasionally ask themselves whether taking on a particular client is worth the consequences, be they moral, ethical, or simply logistical. But what happens when a politically divisive client comes calling?

As some firms - particularly those in Washington, DC - can attest, taking on such a client can lead to consequences all its own. Your firm could easily become known as an exclusively Democratic or Republican shop.

Some firms, because of their owners' political backgrounds or principles, embrace such identities and intentionally work primarily with clients who share their political beliefs. Others steer clear of any client that could alienate either side of the aisle.

But helping controversial or divisive clients is what PR firms were created for, says Richard Mintz, chairman of Burson-Marsteller's Global Government Affairs practice. Hence, they shouldn't shy away from them.

Nonetheless, he believes that employees can always decline to work for a client, or that the firm shouldn't take on a client if it would distract employees from doing their job.

Many PR pros say that while they determine whether to take politically divisive clients on a case-by-case basis, it's important that their employees be bipartisan in order to help clients on both sides of the aisle, as well as to understand the positions that Republicans and Democrats hold on issues.

Robert Schooling, MD of APCO Worldwide's Washington, DC, office, says that his firm has always made an effort to be bipartisan, both in terms of its employees and in the clients the firm takes on, adding that "there's a difference between being a partisan firm and [a firm] taking on issues that may play out in a partisan context."

But Ken Greenberg, president of Encino, CA-based Edge Communications, says his firm would never take on a client that didn't mesh with his own personal political background.

"I cannot have our firm advocate for causes we don't believe in," he says. "I think you do a better job if you believe in the cause you're representing."

Richard Powell, MD at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, says his DC-based firm wouldn't take on a politically divisive client because it would upset the famously bipartisan balance at his firm, which was started by former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn and former GOP National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.

"We don't end up taking [politically divisive] clients because we have to work for clients that both our Republicans and Democrats on staff can work for passionately," he says.

But having a bipartisan team at the table doesn't guarantee success, says David Smith, a partner at GMMB in Washington, which works with many left-leaning groups. "A Republican or a Democratic firm has a deep understanding of public opinion. ... And a successful firm is able to develop coalitions on both sides," he adds.

Firms that do lean to one side of the political spectrum say being branded doesn't bother them. In fact, some say it is a boon for business because clients who share their political background are attracted to their firm. Success with those clients can even lead to expansion into other practice areas.

That's the view at Washington-based Fenton Communications, which markets itself as a public-interest firm catering to progressive or liberal clients, says deputy GM Parker Blackman.

He adds that, over the past 15 years, more and more liberal and progressive groups are augmenting their in-house communications teams with the outside expertise of an agency such as Fenton.

"If you do brand yourself [politically], you've got to have an eye on the market [to be sure] there are enough dollars to support what you are doing," says Sam Waltz, former president of the PRSA and head of Sam Waltz & Associates in Wilmington, DE. "In a smaller market, you may have to find something else to define your firm."

Although it started out as a political PR agency catering to conservative causes, Alexandria, VA-based Creative Response Concepts now gets most of its business from corporate clients, says SVP Keith Appell. He says calling the firm conservative now "is inaccurate," despite such high profile right wing clients as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which helped to sink John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.

Appell feels his firm's expansion with corporate clients is directly attributable to its success with political ones.

"Political campaigns, in many ways, are microcosms of product launches, marketing campaigns, etc.," he says. "We've taken lessons learned in the political arena and applied them to the corporate world."

Taking on political clients

  • If necessary, allow employees to opt out of working with a politically divisive client

  • To understand all facets of an issue, a bipartisan team working with the client might be ideal

  • Firms that lean to one side politically might have an easier time attracting divisive clients, but they still need to understand all sides of an issue

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