Editorial: Controversy over PR contracts has shed light on how difficult it is for a firm to counsel itself

A senior agency practitioner in Los Angeles told me last week that Fleishman-Hillard would be smart to put Richard Kline, Fleishman's regional president, to work on the problems the firm is facing over the size of its contract with the Department of Water and Power. (See p. 2 news story.)

A senior agency practitioner in Los Angeles told me last week that Fleishman-Hillard would be smart to put Richard Kline, Fleishman's regional president, to work on the problems the firm is facing over the size of its contract with the Department of Water and Power. (See p. 2 news story.)

No sooner had it been said than it was so, and Kline is now the appointed spokesman on the issue, the first to offer himself on the record to the major media. (Although Doug Dowie, former GM of the LA office and now co-chair of the agency's national public affairs practice, did speak to PRWeek about this and related issues for the Analysis in our March 1 issue.)

Kline reportedly has a great reputation in Los Angeles, but has his work cut out for him now, unaccustomed as he undoubtedly is to publicly addressing problems relating to his own employer.

To date, Fleishman has been aggressively mum on the issue, while politicians have found an easy target in PR contracts, the purpose of which are largely misunderstood among the general public. "I've always wondered why a public utility needs an outside PR firm to convince people to flick on their light switch," noted one councilman recently in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Word is that the PR agency community at large is feeling the impact of the investigations. Recently, a city proposal under negotiation with a major PR agency had its budget slashed and scope limited due to the heightened scrutiny of such contracts.

Fleishman may not have done itself any favors by being stubbornly silent on this topic for so long. The first hints of the impending controversy emerged well over a year ago, but there does not appear to have been any effort to clarify exactly what the agency is doing for the department. Stories of $1,200 billings for a three-hour lunch fill that journalistic vacuum rather well.

Kline is the consummate Fleishman counselor. Even as he answered questions about the problems facing the firm, he went to great lengths to explain how its strategy has been consistent with the five-point plan it offers embattled clients. But now the doctor has become the patient, and Kline will find it tough to turn this story around.

Marketing Management Survey returns

The second annual PRWeek/MS&L Marketing Management Survey is underway.

Last year's results offered a road map for PR practitioners to better understand how communications is used and how it can gain more ground in the marketing mix.

One striking statistic concerned the perception of PR's capabilities.

While 75% of the CMOs, VPs, and brand managers who responded said their PR firms were capable of working on strategic branding, only 57% said their agencies actually do work on strategic branding. Some 67% said PR is currently underused in the marketing mix.

I hope PRWeek readers will encourage their clients in marketing to take the survey so that we can provide even more valuable data on this crucial consumer of PR services, in-house and externally.

- To take the survey, log on to www.cyberpulse.com/marketing.

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