The Agency Business : PR firms look to PACs to add structure to political donations

To give their election-year political donations order and strategy, some PR agencies set up political action committees, while others encourage staff contributions.

To give their election-year political donations order and strategy, some PR agencies set up political action committees, while others encourage staff contributions.

Tis the political season, which raises the question of how PR agencies go about bestowing political donations. Some set up a political action committee (PAC), a forthright way to organize such giving. Qorvis Communications started to think about creating a federal PAC about six months ago and launched it early in the summer. The agency decided to do that, says managing director Don Goldberg, because it's so important to get clients in front of policy makers. With 70 employees, Qorvis is one of the largest independent PR firm in Washington, DC. The firm wanted to put some strategy behind its political giving. "We were responding to requests for money just on an ad hoc, individual basis," Goldberg says. "And it just dawned on us that we really need to be strategic on this." Other PR firms with federal PACs include Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. In July, in the midst of its problems with the city of Los Angeles, Fleishman-Hillard announced that it was eliminating corporate contributions to political candidates or ballot issues but maintaining its PAC (PRWeek, August 2, 2004). Conkling Fiskum & McCormick, based in Portland, OR, but with a three-person Washington, DC, office that does lobbying, started a federal PAC a year ago, said Pat McCormick, VP of PR at the 17-employee firm (it's had a state PAC for several years). "Since our partners were doing all these contributions individually, it just made it more orderly for the DC staff to put our money through a federal PAC." Goldberg says there were few obstacles to setting up the PAC, called Q-PAC, and Qorvis found no downside to doing so. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has a manual, Campaign Guide for Corporations and Labor Organizations, at its website at Goldberg says staff participation has been "outstanding." He estimates the PAC currently has about $10,000. Under FEC rules, a PAC can solicit only executive and administrative personnel, stockholders, and the families of those two groups. "You have to be careful you're not pressuring anyone to give," Goldberg says. Qorvis has a PAC committee, which Goldberg heads, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, that decides what contributions Q-PAC should make. The committee doesn't actually take a vote, but tries to form a consensus. "The person who suggests it says why it would help our clients or our firm and what amount it should be," Goldberg says. "If someone objects and we can't resolve it, then we don't do it." Q-PAC has already made some contributions to candidates of both parties. That balance is important to the agency, Goldberg says - Qorvis has professionals from both sides of the political aisle. Rather than simply handing out checks, Q-PAC gives money so Qorvis employees can attend events. "We like to have it associated with an event because we think part of the value to our clients and to Qorvis is to be there and to be socializing, not just with the candidate but with other people who are there, as well," says Goldberg. Qorvis is a full-service agency, and Goldberg says political contributions help with all sorts of clients, not just those for which the firm does public affairs work. He gives the example of technology companies that want to sell products to the federal government. Other agencies take a different approach, getting some business advantage through the donations of individual members (who, hopefully, mention to candidates where they work). Still other agencies try to bundle the donations of individuals to the firm's advantage, though there is some worry there that employees will feel pressured into whipping out their checkbooks. Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York, says PR firms need to be careful about how they give. "What you need to think of before you ever write a check like that is will it pass the smell test for you as an individual and for your company if it's seen as a quid pro quo situation? It isn't just passing the legal test that it's lawful. We're in the perception business. We're in the reputation business." Paul says that agency representatives who make political donations should do so to candidates of both parties and be prepared to say that they're doing so to participate in the political process.

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