Kline offers view of LA suit, Fleishman's current culture

Richard Kline, Fleishman-Hillard's regional president for CA, speaks to Anita Chabria about his firm's current state in LA and how the media is handling the investigation

Richard Kline, Fleishman-Hillard's regional president for CA, speaks to Anita Chabria about his firm's current state in LA and how the media is handling the investigation

Last week, Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick shared her views about the PR industry, Fleishman-Hillard's troubles in LA, and how the press is dealing with the situation. Below, Fleishman regional president Richard Kline offers PRWeek his take on the same issues. Citing legal concerns (the firm is being sued by the city over its billing practices on city contracts), Fleishman set some parameters for the interview: written questions only and careful vetting of its answers by its legal team.

Fleishman's attorneys directed Kline not to answer some questions. For instance, PRWeek had asked him to comment on the city attorney's claim that former GM Doug Dowie created an atmosphere of "intimidation." Kline was eager to answer others, such as how the agency has changed its focus in LA. Below is the interview in full.

Another agency in LA, the Lee Andrews Group, was also invited to respond, but didn't reply to PRWeek's request (other than by leaving one voice-mail message) despite numerous attempts. Lee Andrews Group has been audited and criticized by Chick, who mentioned the firm in last week's Q&A.

PRWeek: What is your management style and the current culture of Fleishman's LA office?
Richard Kline: Fleishman-Hillard enjoys a tremendous culture based on longstanding, entrenched values. I am a Fleishman values zealot; I passionately believe in these values, and I look for all of my LA staff to be as dedicated to them as I am. Perhaps I'm so passionate because I want to continue the Fleishman heritage. Respect for the individual, teamwork is everything, quality service is first and foremost, results make us grow, personal commitment is required, and a commitment to the highest ethical standards are several of the values our team is dedicated to living every day.

PRWeek: Fleishman has been criticized for the way it managed its LA office. What do you say to that criticism?
Kline: Fleishman is an entrepreneurial organization that encourages independent thinking. We don't micromanage. We motivate our people to provide the best, most innovative service to our clients. If we err, we err on the side of trust. If we find something that doesn't meet our values, we address it and fix it. We will not tolerate any behavior that fails to meet the highest ethical standards.

PRWeek: What system does Fleishman have to spot potential ethical problems? When did you start that system?
Kline: We've always been very focused on ensuring that our employees provide quality service to our clients with the highest ethical standards. And, we always aim to do better in these areas. Two months ago we introduced a series of enhancements, including a hotline so that anyone associated with Fleishman (employees, suppliers, and clients) can anonymously report questionable or unethical behavior.

Also, we have bolstered our time-entry education and certification procedures, ensured that every exit interview is conducted by senior human-resources professionals at our corporate headquarters, and started surveying new employees to ensure everyone receives the same grounding in our corporate philosophy and our operating policies and procedures.

We will also introduce two programs this fall - a unique case-based ethics-training program for all staff and a customized education program for Fleishman employees who work on public-sector accounts. Lastly, our annual employee survey offers employees an anonymous method to comment about a wide range of key employment, operational, and cultural issues.

PRWeek: What are your current goals and focus for LA operations?
Kline: Fleishman was just rated number one nationally in quality for the 12th consecutive year by the Harris/Impulse Research study. We'll prove that every day, to every account in Los Angeles. Our goal simply is to be the best and to continue to expand our portfolio in several practices, including financial services, healthcare, internal communications, brand and marketing communications, entertainment, and public affairs. We are growing. We have added new clients and additional staff, and have many new opportunities.

PRWeek: City Controller Laura Chick has said that she believes community relations is an area where the city should rely predominantly on in-house PR staff. What do you think of this?
Kline: Each situation needs analysis on its own merits. Agencies provide a depth of expertise, experience, and resources that sometimes isn't found in the public sector.

PRWeek: Did you provide a strategic plan for each contract signed with the Department of Water & Power (DWP), Harbor, and Airport?
Kline: RFPs and RFQs for each of the LA city departments outlined specific goals, objectives, and tasks. We believe we met or exceeded client expectations, and we are proud of the results.

PRWeek: If so, what kinds of ROI did you provide on those plans?
Kline: We achieved significant results for our clients. For example, for the DWP, we assisted with a program that decreased per capita water consumption while the population increased, and supported communications efforts designed to boost awareness and understanding of water issues in various ethnic communities.

In addition, we helped DWP deal with the repercussions from the California energy crisis, among other key results. We helped the Port of Los Angeles secure tens of millions of dollars to protect the port's operations against terrorist attacks, at a time when Southern California's ports were being shortchanged of homeland security funds, and we worked to promote numerous initiatives to clean the air at the Port.

PRWeek: What kind of ROI do you think is feasible and/or best for these types of contracts?
Kline: Measurement depends on what a client needs or wants. We can work with our clients to employ a variety of measurement tools and systems that range from a simple look at media impressions or audience awareness to a more sophisticated analysis of attitudinal changes or business outcomes.

PRWeek: How are you handling the investigations in terms of informing other clients? Is your internal investigation looking at any clients outside of the three contracts with the city of LA?
Kline: We have communicated with our LA clients, and we are in the process of conducting an internal audit in our Los Angeles office to ensure that we are beyond reproach. We also have our own, independent investigation well under way. We are cooperating fully with all authorities and city officials. And we have told them and all of our clients, if any issues are found we will make it right with full, complete reimbursement, if it's appropriate.

Through the years, we have routinely been audited by clients, including various regulatory agencies. The results of these audits have never raised an issue with respect to the integrity of our operation and our focus on high ethical standards.

PRWeek: What is Doug Dowie's current status with Fleishman?
Kline: Doug is on administrative leave from the firm.

PRWeek: Do you think the agency has been treated fairly by the media in this situation?
Kline: Many of us at Fleishman, including me, have been journalists. Most media have been fair and accurate in their reporting. In a few instances, situations have been sensationalized with uncorroborated statements serving as news instead of opinion. However, the vast majority of journalists have been professional and objective in dealing with complicated issues in a politically charged and complex environment.

Despite the allegations and news in Los Angeles, we believe our staff's views underscore the high standards Fleishman works hard to achieve around the world. It's interesting to note that in our recent employee satisfaction survey, which received an 86% response rate, 95% of employees said, "I work for a company I can be proud of," and 96% said they believe Fleishman "is the employer of choice in the industry."

To see PRWeek's recent interview with Laura Chick, click here.

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