Dark arts or a peek under the hood of business as usual

The "dark arts" of PR and "spinning" have been top of the news agenda this week, as more leaked emails and documents emerge relating to the Clinton Foundation and strategic consultancy Teneo.

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Analysis of documents that came to light this month relating to the Clintons and Teneo have reawakened the debate about where the line is that should not be crossed in terms of ethical and legal behavior by the PR profession.

A 2011 memo from Teneo's Doug Band discovered within a batch of emails released Wednesday by WikiLeaks, supposedly originating from hackers linked to Russia, lifts the lid on the workings of the Clinton Foundation and its intersection with the strategic consultancy founded by long-standing Bill Clinton adviser Band and Irish businessman Declan Kelly.

Teneo’s business is very much predicated on access to the CEOs of companies: Money for services tends to come from discretionary CEO budgets, not the communications pot.

Kelly has ambitious aspirations for Teneo, and The Wall Street Journal reported recently that its founders value the firm at an eye-watering $1 billion and may look to IPO next year. He might divide opinion, but he is regarded as politically astute and a top-notch problem solver.

Teneo's philosophy mirrors that of one senior PR leader (Brunswich founder Alan Parker I believe), whose famous maxim was that "if you’re talking to the head of communications, you’re talking to the wrong person."

But there are senior leaders in the PR sector who believe practices that can follow on from the activities uncovered in the WikiLeaks memo verge on being deeply corrosive for the industry. They point to the difference between something like laying on a salon dinner to connect senior execs with influencers to promising CEOs specific outcomes for a price, which could be regarded as pay for play.

It speaks to the perception that business has to buy its way into the discussion, rather than earn its place.

The Band memo was apparently prompted by concerns raised by Chelsea Clinton about the way Teneo execs were leveraging their position within the Clinton Foundation and their privileged access to the former president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indeed, the relationship between Teneo and the Clintons has faded since this memo from 2011 and the firm has apparently had no active role in the current election.

In the memo, Band describes Teneo as offering services including merchant and investment banking, corporate restructuring, PR and communications, and strategic advertising.

PR people, especially on the agency and consulting side, have always prided themselves on using their relationships to introduce their clients to people who could benefit them, whether it’s a beat reporter on the local newspaper or the President of the United States: it’s fair to say Teneo utilizes this technique on steroids.

There is nothing wrong with this on the surface, although a very careful line needs to be forged due to its perception when the activity is revealed to a wider public rather than happening under the radar, as it typically does.

The leaked Band memo outlines engagements with the Clinton Foundation by various global companies and Teneo clients such as Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical involving donations to the foundation that resulted in exposure to the former President and attendance at events.

The sums of money involved are in some cases considerable, especially in the context of what PR pros typically have to operate with. But let's be clear, there are those who would call the rates charged "very reasonable" for the senior access granted by way of these arrangements.

Furthermore, the utilization of the position of former president for financial gain is fairly standard practice, though it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue President Clinton has been more aggressive in the pursuit of cash than some of his predecessors.

But Hillary Clinton’s director of communications Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC Thursday the campaign doesn’t believe "this is something voters are going to focus on or voters are going to care about."

She added: "The foundation, as is known, has done great work. The State Department has looked at this. They have said that there is no decision that Hillary Clinton made as Secretary of State that was based on people who donated to the Clinton Foundation."

For its part, Teneo simply said in a statement: "As the memo demonstrates, Teneo worked to encourage clients, where appropriate, to support the Clinton Foundation because of the good work it does around the world. It also clearly shows Teneo never received any financial benefit or benefit of any kind from doing so."

Band’s leaked memo ends with a section called "Other Matters", in which he outlines the full range of services another former Clinton adviser Justin Cooper and himself undertook for President Clinton, including business, speech, book, and personal activities alongside political and foundation services.

He sums up by stating: "In the unique roles in which we have had the opportunity to serve, we have been able to help balance the multiplicity of activities that demand his time and engagement to best fulfill his personal, political, business, official former President, and foundation/non-profit goals."

And Band concludes by noting: "We appreciate the unorthodox nature of our roles, and the goal of seeking ways to ensure we are implementing best practices to protect the 501(c)3 status of the foundation."

There can’t be many senior business leaders who haven’t laid on a fundraiser for a senator or congressperson at some point in their careers, but Coca-Cola, Dow, and the other companies mentioned in the leaked memo won’t be thrilled about the exposure, and one wonders if it will make them more cautious in their dealings with Teneo moving forward.

Clearly the optics around the leaks are not good. And it keeps the story going with its continued insights into the secret world of connecting and providing access to influence. The fact that director James Coney announced Friday the FBI is probing new emails related to Hillary Clinton will only add further fuel to the fire.

Whatever your take on this, as Band’s pointed reference to the 501(c)3 nonprofit regulations highlights and the careful way he has seemingly so far navigated these potentially treacherous waters, there is currently no suggestion that the activities outlined in the leaked emails and documents represent anything illegal or provide proof of wrongdoing.

However, if more documents emerge in due course that show a legal line has been crossed, that will be a totally different matter.

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