Burson clients unaffected by Penn articles

Despite a slew of recent headlines about the CEO, many clients say they've hardly noticed

Although the Penn-Clinton-Colombia triangle snagged headlines and prompted a rash of frenzied political blogging two weeks ago, some clients of Burson-Marsteller's claim that they barely noticed.

Lawrence Hinker, associate VP for university relations at Virginia Tech, told PRWeek that the news did not affect his university's work with the agency.

"I'm afraid I've been oblivious to such things," Hinker says, via e-mail. "No, it's just not on my radar screen."

Burson is providing strategic counsel in the aftermath of last year's shootings on the Virginia campus. Hinker says he's more concerned with the "media torrent" related to the one-year anniversary of the shootings this week, rather than the Penn controversy.

Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations at the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a trade association representing the seafood industry, says neither his public affairs colleagues nor NFI cares much about the issue.

"We don't have anything to offer on this story," Gibbons says. "Our work just continues... as usual. It's not a topic for us."

Critics from competing agencies pointed to Penn's relationship with Burson clients, such as NFI, as creating a possible conflict of interest for Clinton's campaign. Several articles also highlighted the institute's campaign to encourage pregnant and nursing women to eat more of certain types of fish as a problem for Clinton, but Gibbons says his group is used to criticism.

"We deal with that stuff all the time," he notes. "There's misreporting about [our] industry all the time."

Another Burson client, Century21, also agrees that what goes on with Penn doesn't affect its daily work.

"To me, it doesn't have anything to do with our day-to-day relationship with them as our PR agency of record," says Mike Callaghan, VP of strategic marketing at Century 21. "I haven't really put too much thought into it. I've never met Mark. It's just really been a non-factor."

Callaghan says he has found the coverage on Penn and his firm interesting, only because it involved a fellow communications executive, not for any other reason.

Other Burson clients - including Comcast, Washington tourism-trade group DC Destination, and former-Burson client Blackwater USA - did not respond to requests for comment.

If other clients of the agency are concerned by the controversy, they're not talking about it publicly. Burson's now ex-client Colombia is one exception, of course. The country's president, Alvaro Uribe, took offense to Penn's handling of the media storm in which he called his meeting with Colombia embassy officials an "error in judgment," and terminated the nation's contract with Burson in a very public letter.

When asked for comment on how the controversy might or might not affect the average Burson customer, Josh Gottheimer, EVP and chair of corporate and public affairs practices, says the firm cannot discuss issues with clients, but that overall it has had a banner year thanks to its clients.

"Our clients are the most important [thing] to us," he says.

Additionally, a Burson representative speaking on background says the issue appears to have run its course in the media.

Articles on the Penn snafu were less prevalent a week after the news first surfaced, however, outlets such as The New York Times, the Financial Times and the Washington Post, as well as political-centric HuffingtonPost.com, continued to follow the story, particularly given Sen. Barack Obama's comment that he, too, would have sacked Penn from the campaign.

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