Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn and other officials at the agency denied all along that his working two jobs - heading a major PR firm and serving as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign - created a conflict of interest.
Even prior to last week's Wall Street Journal report that Penn had met with the Colombian ambassador to discuss Burson's work to support the approval of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton opposes, the agency refuted any conflict.
Few other people in the PR industry believed this. Even if there is no conflict of interest, the perception of one is just as bad, as any PR pro should know.
Trade unions including the AFL-CIO decried the Penn-Colombia meeting and called on him to resign from the campaign. Shortly after, Penn did step down from his role with the campaign. He is still an "adviser," however, and the Burson-owned firm he co-founded, Penn, Schoen & Berland, continues to serve as Clinton's polling firm.
Penn himself realized his error, but an apology and stepping away from one campaign job title into another does not go far enough. The media attention won't subside until Penn commits himself to one side - either a leave of absence from Burson or totally removing himself from Clinton's campaign. He can't have it both ways. The media and political pundits, as evidenced by the outcry over his remaining as an adviser, are not so easily fooled.
Charlie Black of BKSH & Associates has taken a leave of absence to work for John McCain, and Karl Rove sold his direct-marketing business to work for George W. Bush. If the best interests of Burson's clients and Clinton are to be served, Penn should follow these examples.
The agency says it continues to prosper financially under Penn's leadership, but it should consider what it is willing to lose if Penn maintains a dual role.