Paul Holmes

Ketchum, Fleishman responses to scandals would profit from viewpoint of external firms

Ketchum, Fleishman responses to scandals would profit from viewpoint of external firms

I've often said that most PR is nothing more than "applied common sense."

But common sense is not nearly as common as the term implies, and applying it can be surprisingly difficult - which is a good thing for those of you who earn your living practicing the craft, and for those of us who make a far less lucrative living writing about it.

It's difficult because even people who understand the rules of PR, who realize the value of open and honest communications and who provide expert counsel to others when crises strike - even people who are experts in this business - can stumble when their own reputations are on the line.

Two big, successful, and very well-managed PR firms have experienced their own PR crises over the past 12 months: Fleishman-Hillard, charged with overbilling clients of its Los Angeles office, and Ketchum, accused of making payments to a commentator to buy favorable coverage for a political client.

While not minimizing the difficulties these agencies faced in ascertaining the facts of the case and responding to a hostile media, it's fair to say that both were criticized by their peers - and by reporters - for some elements of their responses. As is often the case, some news stories raised the question of why firms that offer PR counsel to others seemed to be mismanaging their own PR.

The answer is, to me, obvious: Both Fleishman-Hillard and Ketchum should have retained outside PR counsel.

That's not to denigrate the PR skills of the leaders of those two agencies or to suggest that they don't have tremendous crisis management expertise. But I do believe - and it's hard to believe the leaders of Ketchum and Fleishman would disagree with me, at least in the abstract - that there is a strong case to be made that any organization under fire benefits from the perspective of outside communications counsel.

I'm sure that both John Graham and Ray Kotcher have made the case to corporate clients that no matter how good their in-house PR teams might be, there's a good reason to bring in someone from outside the organization, someone who doesn't have to worry about organizational politics and whose perspective is not clouded by being too close to the issue. That is as true for their own organizations - maybe more so - as it is for any ordinary client.

In the legal profession, there's a famous adage that the lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. The next PR firm that finds itself at the center of a media firestorm needs to think about that, swallow its pride, and find an outside PR firm to provide the kind of neutral viewpoint agencies can deliver to clients.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 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

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