PAUL HOLMES: Likelihood of broad dissent has firms feeling skittish over potential 'Healthy Marriage' RFP

If the Bush administration sends out an RFP looking for a PR agency to assist with its "Healthy Marriage" initiative, it might be surprised by the response - or lack of it.

If the Bush administration sends out an RFP looking for a PR agency to assist with its "Healthy Marriage" initiative, it might be surprised by the response - or lack of it.

It's always possible that the promise of a seven-figure budget could change some minds, but I've spoken with a half-dozen major agency principals over the past couple of weeks and every one of them has expressed serious reservations about the initiative, including doubts about whether it's the right thing to do and whether it's a problem PR can solve. The initiative, already approved by the House, lays out a $1.5 billion effort to educate the public - and particularly low-income communities - about the tools needed to keep marriages together. It will increase federal funding for local programs that focus on areas such as communications skills and conflict resolution. The Department of Health & Human Services has announced plans to issue an RFP that would involve communicating two messages: that successful marriages require certain skills and that education is available. But some groups are suspicious that the initiative is just a way for the administration to advance the conservative view of marriage - a suspicion reinforced by the religious right's enthusiasm for the program. The National Organization for Women worries the initiative might persuade women to stay in bad, even abusive, marriages, while gay and lesbian groups see it as a subtle way of narrowly defining marriage to exclude their unions. Those criticisms appear to resonate with the top PR firms. Of six who responded to an e-mail on the subject, three indicated they would not respond to such an RFP, while three others said they would need more information before deciding. Says Ron Hartwig, director of the US corporate practice at Hill & Knowlton, "While there are elements of the [initiative] that seem worthy of praise, other elements seem misdirected or motivated by politics." Hartwig also believes employees would react negatively if the firm took on the assignment, "and rightfully so. Supporting this initiative as it's currently described would result in criticism not only by employees, but also by employees' families, business partners, clients, media, and opinion leaders." (H&K may be especially sensitive to such criticism, having worked on the abortion issue for the Roman Catholic bishops a decade ago.) While no one would ever suggest that PR firms should steer clear of controversial issues, it makes sound sense for firms to consider employee reaction before taking on deeply divisive programs such as this one. Employee loyalty is more important than the revenues from a single piece of business, no matter how big the budget.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 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 www.holmesreport.com.

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