HOLMES REPORT: Placement of agency staff on-site with clients is a time-tested practice that benefits both parties

Fleishman-Hillard, the most admired PR firm of the last decade, has suddenly found a knack for attracting controversy.

Fleishman-Hillard, the most admired PR firm of the last decade, has suddenly found a knack for attracting controversy.

First, the firm was embroiled in political turmoil surrounding LA Mayor James Hahn (D), with the mayor's opponents highlighting Fleishman's political contributions and questioning its work for the LA Department of Power & Water, among other city clients. Then the firm was accused of unethical behavior by San Francisco Chronicle reporter David Lazarus after he learned that PR staff at Fleishman client SBC actually worked for the agency. An investigation into the first charge is underway, but so far there's no evidence that Fleishman did anything questionable - certainly nothing that would justify Hahn's absurd decision to suspend the use of outside PR firms citywide, at who knows what cost. But it's safe to say the second charge is utterly spurious. Lazarus, who's been covering contentious labor discussions at SBC, says he was "shocked" to learn that Marc Bien, VP of communications at SBC, draws his salary from Fleishman. He is, says Lazarus, "an outside contractor, as are dozens of other Fleishman employees who assist with SBC's corporate spin." Leaving aside the editorializing - the use of the derogatory term "spin" in a news story betrays a total lack of objectivity - the fact that Bien is an outside contractor is relevant to the story because one of the issues in the labor dispute Lazarus is covering involves the telecom company's use of outside contractors. But the ethical question is a red herring. There's nothing new about this kind of client-agency relationship. In the '60s and '70s, the old Carl Byoir & Associates routinely placed its employees on-site with clients. That example has been followed by many of the big agencies. Indeed, there's nothing new about the Fleishman-SBC relationship: the Chronicle itself reported on the fact that Fleishman executive Linda Mills (who happens to be married to chairman and CEO John Graham) was an SVP at SBC almost a decade ago. From a client-agency relationship perspective, this seamlessness is a good thing. It indicates a level of trust between client and agency that all of us should strive to achieve. As for Lazarus' accusation that Fleishman is in breach of the Council of PR Firms Code of Ethics ("in communicating with the public and media, member firms will maintain total accuracy and truthfulness"), I don't see the issue. Bien is a VP at SBC. That's truthful and accurate - the company has chosen to give him that title. He speaks for the company, presumably truthfully and accurately. The fact that Fleishman signs his paychecks doesn't change either of those facts.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for ublications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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