PAUL HOLMES: Attracting good clients starts with retaining the best people, and hearing their concerns

A little more than a decade ago, senior management at Hill & Knowlton decided to go to work for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was determined to persuade more Americans to its side of the abortion debate. The decision to take the Bishops as a client reflected, to a large extent, the views of some of the senior executives at the firm - strong supporters of the church on this and other issues.

A little more than a decade ago, senior management at Hill & Knowlton decided to go to work for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was determined to persuade more Americans to its side of the abortion debate. The decision to take the Bishops as a client reflected, to a large extent, the views of some of the senior executives at the firm - strong supporters of the church on this and other issues.

While the Conference was just one more in a long list of controversial clients for H&K (during the same period, the agency also represented the government of Kuwait and the Church of Scientology), its involvement in the abortion debate sparked a firestorm of criticism and, more damaging, a mini-rebellion within the agency by employees who had not been consulted and who felt their employer was supporting an effort to strip them of their freedom to choose. For months, I received a steady flow of faxes and packages from H&K employees who were intent on sabotaging their firm's work for the bishops. Along with other reporters, I got copies of the agency's strategic communications plan, memos between account staffers, and other confidential documents. The same documents were sent to pro-choice groups. While not defending those employees, who surely owed some loyalty to H&K, their actions were understandable considering management's decision, which was made without consultation or consideration of the employees' feelings. That's not to say agencies should never work for controversial clients, but it is to say that doing so without thinking through the impact on employees is probably not smart. Just as PR firms would counsel clients to consider the impact of their decisions on all stakeholders, so the firms themselves need to understand how stakeholders are likely to be affected by their decisions. So when New Jersey-based PR firm The MWW Group had the opportunity to go to work with Planned Parenthood, CEO Michael Kempner wanted to make sure it would not adversely impact the firm's culture. He talked to all practice group leaders, and solicited feedback from all employees - particularly those who held strong religious beliefs. Not all of them agreed with Planned Parenthood's objectives, and some indicated they would not be willing to work on the account. But none of them were opposed to accepting the client. These are trying times for the public relations business, and good clients are hard to come by. But good employees are even more difficult to attract and retain, and no firm can do consistently good work if its employees are unhappy or if they feel management doesn't respect their feelings. And sometimes, all you have to do is ask.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of http://www.holmesreport.com.

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