Howard Paster, WPP's EVP, told PRWeek that although Penn “did a client a disservice because of the publicity," senior management retains confidence in Penn.
“If he'd not gone to the embassy, there would have been an appropriate fire wall between him and the client,” Paster said. “I think that the error he made was with respect to both the client and the campaign, frankly, because the client got negative publicity, which you never want to do for a client, and it caused the campaign another political problem.”
When asked if WPP Group CEO Sir Martin Sorrell was upset by Penn's action, Paster responded, “I think it's fair to say that we're all upset about it, and that includes Mark and WPP. This is not something anyone likes.”
Although WPP expects the story to continue to “run its course” in the media, including follow-on articles in weekly news magazines, Paster reiterated that the Burson firm overall is doing great financially and operationally under Penn's leadership.
“Burson is at a good place right now,” he said. “It had a strong '07, an excellent first quarter this year, it's growing in all regions, has got a lot of good people, and we expect it will survive the storm and be safe.”
Paster said Penn's visit with Colombian visitors was simply a courtesy call that did not delve into specifics related to the passage of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which aligns with the talking points discussed within an internal Burson memo that the Wall Street Journal reported on.
A Burson representative confirmed that the memo is accurate, but said he did not know who sent it to the Journal.
Penn stepped down from his position as chief strategist on Sunday to play a lesser role in the Clinton campaign following media reports that he met with Ambassador Carolina Barco Isakson to discuss Burson's work with the Colombian government on the proposed Fair Trade Agreement, which Clinton opposes.
Burson told employees that Penn met with Barco, whom he has known for more than 30 years, and her staff, as agency CEO, not Clinton campaign aide, and that he had no role in the account, according to the Journal's report.
The Colombian government terminated its $300,000 contract with Burson after reports of the meeting surfaced in the press and Penn issued a statement calling the meeting an “error in judgment.”
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said that Penn's statement showed “a lack of respect to Colombians.”
The Huffington Post also reported on April 7 that Penn told Burson managing directors, during a conference call, that media attention on his resignation would soon decrease and that he would be able to spend more time working for the agency.
A Burson representative told PRWeek that he did not know who had leaked the conversation to the Huffington Post.