Firms shouldn't forget to manage their own reputations

Crisis communications firms often take on the most controversial, challenging, and even reviled clients. But as these agencies handle the reputations of their clients, it is important that they remember to consider the reputation of the agency, as well.

Crisis communications firms often take on the most controversial, challenging, and even reviled clients. The recent revelation that Levick Strategic Communications is representing Roger Clemens, a former MLB pitcher who was accused of steroid abuse, is the latest example in a string that includes Chris Brown, Nadya Suleman, and, according to Rachel Maddow, just about every client of Burson-Marsteller.

But as these agencies handle the reputations of their clients, it is important that they remember to consider the reputation of the agency, as well. Working with a disliked person or company can open the door for public backlash, as in the case of Suleman's PR representative who received death threats. At the same time, being able to smartly handle difficult situations can reflect well on a team and give them invaluable experience.

Many agencies have the experience, talent, and interest in taking on controversial clients, and PR firms have the right to represent whomever they wish, but every client should be part of a strategic decision that the firm comes to. Working with a big name—no matter the situation—can also put an agency on the map. Yet for agencies that may be struggling with their own hardships, an infamous name can do more harm than good.

Every client affects an agency's reputation, from the Clemens and Browns to the nonprofits and well-liked brands. And most agencies understand that when working with controversial clients—and any client, really—discretion is important. Seeming to latch on to the coattails of a famous name won't do any good, and neither will publicly denouncing the client if ties are severed.

PR support is necessary for many crisis situations today, and to put it simply, honesty about the relationship is the best way to show support for a client and not tarnish anyone's reputation.

All these factors should be taken into consideration when signing a client. Agencies known for their squeaky-clean reputations should be more conservative with their decisions, but those ready for a challenge, and willing to take a risk, will find opportunities to flex their crisis communications muscles. Certainly Maddow's rant on Burson didn't preclude the FCC from hiring the well-known firm for its highly visible and important DTV transition campaign. However, because reputation management is such a key topic in agency work for clients, firms should be certain they have a handle on their own.

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