Former FitzGibbon staffers detail firm's final days

A staff retreat in Austin, Texas, earlier this month was the turning point for staffers at the public affairs firm, who then asked founder Trevor FitzGibbon to take a leave of absence.

WASHINGTON: Several former staffers at now-defunct FitzGibbon Media told PRWeek that several of the firm’s managers came together after an agency retreat in Austin, Texas, earlier this month to demand cofounder Trevor FitzGibbon go on leave.

FitzGibbon dissolved the agency after staffers made it clear they would no longer work with him, according to former staffers who spoke with PRWeek on the condition of anonymity.

The firm, known for its record helping progressive causes such as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Conservation International, closed this month after allegations about the personal conduct of founder and president Trevor FitzGibbon. A number of female staffers at the agency had reportedly come forward with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse by FitzGibbon.

One source with knowledge of the situation told PRWeek that the agency’s team forced FitzGibbon’s hand to shut down the firm because staffers no longer wanted to work with him. Once allegations emerged after a companywide retreat in Austin, Texas, senior staffers began to discuss, along with lawyers, how to respond to the situation, while also trying to maintain healthy relationships with clients.

In the aftermath of the agency closing its doors, nearly 40 clients are up for grabs.

Senior executives confronted CEO
Several former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that after the December 2-5 retreat, senior managers held an emergency meeting the following day to discuss the allegations.

The eight-member management team decided that "[Trevor FitzGibbon] needs to go on administrative leave effective immediately," said one former staffer.

While the management team did not fully understand the business structure or its legal options, they knew employees did not want to work for the tarnished brand or FitzGibbon himself after the Austin retreat.

"No one feels safe working with him, and what he’s doing is completely antithetical to the goal and mission of the firm," one former employee said. "It’s contrary to our progressive values."

The management team officially then asked Trevor FitzGibbon, the sole shareholder of the firm, to leave.

He obliged and sent a note, obtained by PRWeek, to the entire FitzGibbon Media staff on December 14.

"I wanted to let you know that starting now I’m going to be on leave for at least six weeks so that I can get grounded with Meredith and my family in Richmond and address some specific things that I need some outside consultation to address.  It’s been brought to my attention that in the past six months to a year my actions and words may have made folks feel uncomfortable or upset which is the last thing I have ever wanted.  We have worked hard to build this firm into what it is today – each of you is critically important - and I know that under the leadership of Doug, Al, and the management team, you all will continue to thrive and fight for the issues and clients that matter most and what this firm has always stood for. With complete respect, Trevor."

Trevor FitzGibbon could not be reached for comment.

The eight managers represented about a third of the company, which had 30 staffers before its closure on December 17.

"His name on the shingle outside the door wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t work to have his name next to an organization that represents victims," one former employee said.

Last Thursday, the firm was dissolved. All four offices were closed and 30 employees of FitzGibbon Media were laid off without severance and healthcare. The announcement was an emotional moment; many staffers were crying, according to former employees.

The news was delivered to employees when Al Thompson, SVP for finance and administration, called an all-staff meeting, including remote offices via Skype. That same day, Thompson sent a note to all 40 clients.

One former staffer who spoke with PRWeek said she was uncomfortable with FitzGibbon’s behavior, but did not speak up.

"As a woman in this industry you chalk it up to the person being eccentric," she said. "Some things you have to turn a blind eye to, so you won’t be seen as a troublemaker."

Many employees became closer to one another because of the shared trauma, a former junior employee said. None have filed formal charges, but several have retained legal counsel, according to sources.

Some were pleased at how quickly managers came to help.

"In other workplaces, this was swept under the rug," one former staffer said. "[At FitzGibbon] everybody was taking this seriously. All of the men were standing in solidarity with staff members."

Thompson’s note to clients was obtained by PRWeek.

"We believe clients and their causes are worth supporting with vigor, no matter the cost," the note read. "Unfortunately, at this time, the firm is not in a position to continue the great work and results you have come to expect from us."

After that, the phones "lit on fire," said one former employee.

"I have never had so many missed calls," she recalled. "Everybody was in shock."

Staffers help each other out
Three senior team members from the now-defunct FitzGibbon Media are starting a crowdfunding project to raise money for the most financially strapped of their former colleagues.

Senior director of media relations Brett Abrams, senior digital director Sean Carlson, and associate VP of media relations Christina DiPasquale are working jointly to help other former staffers with healthcare, consulting, and legal resources.

"It’s not just jobs. It’s advice. How do we lead? How do we boost morale?" DiPasquale told PRWeek, saying there are employees with serious medical needs who won’t have healthcare as of the end of January, and members of the senior team wanted to help.

Staffers told PRWeek  this week that they have received no severance pay following the shut down. Founded in 2008, the agency had offices in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. It expanded to London in January.

One client responds
Equality organization UltraViolet, one of FitzGibbon’s former clients, released a statement about the matter on Monday saying, "Sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and it has no place in the progressive movement or anywhere else."

"We deeply regret the impact that this is having on the staff at FitzGibbon Media and truly value and appreciate the small team that we worked with day in and day out," the statement read. "We hope the former staff will be supported fully for what they have been and are going through."

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