Burson-Marsteller worldwide president and CEO Mark Penn recently spoke with PRWeek's Ted McKenna about efforts to build the agency's “bipartisanship” – including the hire of Bush confidante Karen Hughes -- and his work at the firm following the end of Sen. Clinton's presidential campaign, for which Penn was for a time the chief strategist.
PRWeek: What's the appeal in hiring Hughes?
Mark Penn: It's the idea of having a bipartisan brainstrust, having a strategic group. We have Karen; Don Baer, who is also a vice chairman and was director of communications for the [Clinton] White House, myself, COO Rick Powell. I think what we're building is a team of high-level professionals who've been through some of the toughest crises in the White House, and that are ready to go through the same kind of crises in the corporate world.
PRWeek: Is there a general perception that Burson is more Democratic leaning now because of your participation in the Hillary Clinton campaign? And if so, is that fair?
Penn: I think Burson has been bipartisan for a long time. I think Harold had a very close relationship with many presidents, particularly President Reagan, and I think this in many ways updates that pattern into the Clinton and both Bush administrations.
PRWeek: But do you feel there is a perception that the firm is Democratic leaning?
Penn: No, I don't think there's a perception that the firm is Democratic or Republican leaning. Harold and Pat had excellent Republican ties, I have excellent Democratic ties, and I think the firm has been very well balanced. BKSH, with Charlie Black, has been very well balanced. This underscores that the firm really does have people from both sides of the aisle. But the point of coming together is not to be about politics; it's about taking people who've been through the toughest situations and bringing them together in a way that goes across politics. It's not about politics.
PRWeek: What are Karen's job duties as you see them? Working with CEOs in providing strategic counsel?
Penn: She [will be] working with CEOs and major corporations on providing strategic counsel. And she'll be helping with new business development as well.
PRWeek: How do you describe your work at Burson now? You're back at the firm full time, whereas formerly you delegated some management?
Penn: I think as I've indicated, I've always been full-time management, but always had a good portion of my time involved with clients. Now I've been able to shift my time from the campaign to a wide range of clients. I continue with the same management responsibilities but now can work for a much larger number of clients in the corporate world and I'm getting out there and doing just that.
PRWeek: Do you feel it worked out OK in terms of dividing your time between Burson management and the Clinton campaign?
Penn: It was an extremely intense experience. I certainly would have hoped that the result would have been different. But I think what I've tried to do at Burson for the last two and half years is a strategy of modernizing the firm and moving it forward in many ways and I think I've always wanted to put together the kind of bipartisan braintrust that we're putting together here. I think I've made a major step toward that with Karen's appointment.
PRWeek: So you plan to have “braintrusts” in other countries? Where and when might you start forming those?
Penn: As you know, I've been involved in more than 20 successful presidential races around the world, including [former UK Prime Minister Tony] Blair's reelection, so I've got a lot of people around the world who I think we could tie into. We're not going to do it in every country, but I hope we'll do it in a number of countries around the world, and we're probably looking at the UK next. [But that's] still in the works.
PRWeek: When people ask you about the Clinton campaign, is there a short you can give about why Obama prevailed and Clinton didn't make it?
Penn: I think we'll be talking about that for a long time. Right now I think people are looking forward to what's happening in the fall and how the political season is shaking out.
PRWeek: Will you be participating in the campaign in someway -- helping the Obama campaign formally or informally?
Penn: I think right now I'm really focused on Burson and Penn & Schoen and companies and moving them forward on a sure path.
PRWeek: Regarding the Colombia embassy meeting you had, did you view that as a conflict of interest while working on the Clinton campaign, given its opposition to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement?
Penn: I think I said it was an error in judgment because of its appearance. It was actually a longstanding contract for public relations, and I don't think there's anything new about that.
PRWeek: Also, did you regret not taking a leave of absence, like [McCain adviser] Charlie Black from BKSH?
Penn: Well, he actually stayed straight through the primaries at BKSH, so I didn't understand [why people said that]. He did not take a leave of absence. It was not an accurate depiction. He was with BKSH until McCain became the nominee.
PRWeek: But did you feel you should have taken a leave of absence because it was raised as a issue by Clinton opponents trying to score points?
Penn: In retrospect, I don't think I would have done it the same way. I think I probably wouldn't have done it this way. But I think at this point the campaign is over. and we're focused on moving forward. I think it was a very, very unique primary campaign in the history of the country. I don't think people anticipated this kind of primary. I probably would have done things differently, but we really will be drawing from the experience of the campaign and putting together the top level of experience. I don't think other firms have the same kind of pool we're putting together at Burson.