NEW YORK: Burson-Marsteller worldwide CEO and president Mark Penn said the recent appointment of longtime President George W. Bush confidante Karen Hughes as vice chair marks the start of an effort by the agency to create a worldwide “bipartisan braintrust.”
Hughes between 2005 and 2007 was the head of public diplomacy at the State Department and prior to that served in the Bush administration as a senior communications counselor. She will be based in Austin and provide strategic counsel to corporate clients as well as assist with new business development.
Both Penn and Hughes denied that Burson is perceived as a Democratic party-leaning firm, despite Penn's work as former chief strategic to Sen. Clinton's failed presidential campaign. Founding chairman Harold Burson, Burson US president and CEO Pat Ford, and worldwide COO Rick Powell all have longstanding ties to the GOP, Penn and Hughes noted to PRWeek.
“But the point of coming together is not about politics; it's about taking people that have been through the toughest situations and bringing them together in a way that goes across politics,” Penn said. “That will be useful for clients out in the marketplace facing what are often very unique problems today.”
Penn said that the work he's done providing communications support to presidential campaigns throughout the world, including work on behalf of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, will allow him to more easily recruit high-level political pros to join Burson in creating similar “bipartisan braintrusts” at offices around the world.
“As you know I've been involved in more than 20 successful races around the world, including Blair's reelection, so I've got a lot of people around the world who I think we could tie into,” Penn said. “We're not going to do it in every country, but I hope we'll do it in a number of countries, and we're probably looking at the UK next.”
Hughes said that following her resignation from the State Department at the end of 2007, Burson's Powell suggested she consider working for the agency. In her first meeting with Penn, Hughes said they found that despite their different political backgrounds, both she and Penn shared a view -- shaped in part by their White House experiences -- that communications professionals provide a core service to senior executives.
“My title [at the White House] was Counselor and I think that reflected the president's understanding -- and he's our first MBA president -- that the communicator needs to be part of the team, not just somebody you bring in after the fact,” Hughes said. “Somebody who can say, ‘Hey this isn't a good idea' or ‘We can approach this differently' or ‘Perhaps we could communicate this better.'”
Hughes said she continues to see President Bush on occasion and provide informal advice. However, she plans to focus on her new Burson duties and to likely only “dabble” in politics from here on out, participating in fundraisers for the Republican party or various candidates as well as provide media commentary on the presidential race on occasion.