For any public affairs firm, the ability to manage a client's reputation is essential to maintaining a successful practice. Equally as important, though, is the ability to manage one's own reputation.
"We're very image-conscious," says Matthew Klink, principal and EVP at LA-based Cerrell Associates. "Our ability to do what we do is based on our relationships and credibility," he explains. If a potential assignment - be it in the political, advocacy, or corporate arena - is "way too controversial, we probably should take a pass."
It's a familiar quandary for public affairs pros: Will good-intentioned efforts to influence public opinion for a client have lasting, negative effects on the firm's reputation?
It's "the crux of trying to survive in business," says Kelley Moran, president of Sacramento-based Moran & Associates. "Somebody offers you work and you hate to turn it down. But what do you do - take any work offered to you? Sometimes, it's not in your long-term best interests."
Though there a number of issues "there's no way I could support," says Moran, he explains that the worlds of business and politics revolve around the art of compromise. "There are two sides to every story," he says. "Both sides deserve representation."
For the most part, that outlook hasn't been an obstacle for Moran. In establishing his professional status, he explains, "that's what I am: a professional. I have clients with problems that need to be solved. My job is to solve them to the best of my ability and [do] the best job possible to represent them."
Because public affairs is a results-oriented business, "our reputations are based on whether or not we've served past clients well," agrees Eric Beach, LA-based VP at Mercury Public Affairs, which is part of Fleishman-Hillard.
No matter the client, a firm must build the best team possible and perform at the highest levels, he says. It's when those expectations aren't met that the agency's reputation will suffer.
Public affairs is "a small world," Beach says. "People talk... Future relationships depend upon whether you can do the job."
But the importance of sustaining established relationships can also impact a firm's decisions, says Carl Kemp, partner with LA-based Englander & Associates and head of its Long Beach, CA, office.
There are "bigger issues" than securing a lucrative public policy contract, or even being victorious in a campaign, he says. For him, those include staying on positive terms with city council members.
"I value [that] relationship," says Kemp. For the long-term benefit of the firm, he explains, it's best to turn down an opposing client than go head-to-head with the council.
To safeguard one's reputation in the public affairs arena, it really comes down to being as aware of your firm's missions and objectives as you are of your clients', says Cerrell's Klink.
"Know who you are, your guiding principles, your foundation as a company, how you see yourself as a corporate entity, and how you want others to see you," he says. "The last thing we want to be known as [is] a hired gun."
For public affairs firms, reputation management is vital to long-term success
Representing controversial issues or people can have lasting negative effects on a firm's reputation
Keeping relationships intact is often more important than accepting lucrative contracts