ANALYSIS <b>The Agency Business:</b> Some PR pros question need to drop employees' client titles

Since Fleishman-Hillard was criticized for using SBC titles for its employees, many PR practitioners have been asking themselves what the public uproar is all about.

Since Fleishman-Hillard was criticized for using SBC titles for its employees, many PR practitioners have been asking themselves what the public uproar is all about.

When San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Lazarus recently took Fleishman-Hillard and client SBC Communications to task for allowing Fleishman employees to identify themselves with SBC titles, many observers criticized the practice. Without attacking Fleishman directly, they urged others in the industry to be as transparent as possible. Even though Fleishman says the relationship with SBC is no secret to journalists or others in the PR world, the agency decided to drop the SBC titles to avoid further confusion. But some in the industry quietly reacted to the news with a shrug of the shoulders, a collective "so what?" Many agency staff members are identified in news stories as spokespeople for clients, so some are wondering what the uproar is all about. "It's not that egregious," asserts Gerald Ansel, director of PR for Unisyn Software, adding that during his agency days he often identified himself as being with a particular client. "We are authorized to speak on our clients' behalf. So I don't see what the difference is. I would draw the line at manipulating the relationship to deceive the press into doing a certain story. But the EVP of communications or the agency's account manager are both paid spokespeople." Deborah Charnes Vallejo, MD of Bromley/MS&L in San Antonio, TX, agrees. She says she would never have her staff identify themselves as being with a particular client without the client's approval. But most often agencies identify themselves with their clients because of the chemistry between the in-house and agency teams. "Our clients view us as an extension of their team," says Charnes Vallejo. "The reason we identify as being with a client is because we do a lot of the same media calls to the same people. In the routine schedule of pitching to the same media, it makes things more simple. And often the client wants us to identify ourselves that way. We would not do it without the client wanting us to. And I think the media knows we're acting on a client's behalf." But some PR organizations don't believe anything should be left to chance. Tom Martin, president of the Arthur W. Page Society, says the society's principles state "that the most important thing is to tell the truth and back that up with the actions you take. We should be doing everything we can to restore trust in business. We should be doing everything to be forthright." PRSA president-elect Judith Phair adds that using a client's title is more frequent when a firm requires someone from its agency to work on site. But she agrees it can confuse outsiders. "You're hired as an independent agency for your independent perspective," says Phair. "I can't say it's unethical. But when we're worried about openness and transparency, it may not be a best practice." When Fleishman stopped using SBC titles for employees who worked on site at SBC, the Page Society and PRSA applauded the decision. But agencies want to be as seamless with their clients as they can be, or as much so as their clients will allow, argues Honey Rand, president of The Environmental PR Group. If the client wants the relationship to be seamless, Rand says she's not sure why it matters how an agency person is identified. And if an agency person is close enough to use a client title, it seems unlikely that that person would be working with other clients, she adds. "I don't think the media really cares who I work for as long as I'm a legitimate spokesperson," says Rand. It's best for the client to represent itself and be with the media as much as possible, adds Charnes Vallejo. But when the client wants collaboration, agencies often provide whatever the client needs to achieve that, including speaking on its behalf. "Let's admit that most reporters don't care," asserts Ansel. "They need a quote from the company, and whether it comes from the agency or in-house isn't an issue in the end because whatever the agency says has already been scrubbed clean by the company." Considerations when using clients' titles
  • Only do it with the client's permission
  • Make sure it will not lead to confusion or suspicion from the media
  • Defer to the in-house PR team when possible for public comments
  • Avoid using client titles concerning financial issues, such as earnings reports

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