H&K merger shows influence of public affairs

The news that Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies are merging reflects the increasing demand for senior-level public affairs counsel in the US.

The news that Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies are merging reflects the increasing demand for senior-level public affairs counsel in the US.

The merger between the two WPP Group-owned agencies adds 175 employees to Hill & Knowlton's roster in the US, while also bringing in former Bush White House adviser Dan Bartlett to lead the US operations of Hill & Knowlton as president and CEO.

With Republicans taking control of the House and business groups and corporations seeing the need to be bolder when speaking out against regulatory action in Washington, Bartlett's position ensures that Hill & Knowlton has reestablished itself as a go-to counsel for industry sectors under fire in Washington.

Long-known for a history steeped public affairs, in recent years, Hill & Knowlton has seen its business fueled by global growth. Earlier this year, Taaffe cited public affairs and global expansion as key growth areas for the firm, with the Asia market showing a 14% year-over-year increase in revenue in 2009.

Yet, WPP has continually reported that the US is leading the economic rebound for the PR and public affairs sectors.

Another WPP-owned firm, Burson-Marsteller, made an agency announcement this week. The firm said that it had relaunched one of its consultancies as a boutique agency handling corporate reputation and international brand issues. When I spoke with Andrew Goldberg, CEO of the newly named PivotRed, he told me that one of the reasons that Burson developed PivotRed was the understanding that companies are increasingly seeking counsel when dealing with regulatory changes.

For years, public affairs and PR pros have said they recognize the need for integrated communications plans that bring together public affairs, government relations, marketing, and corporate communications.

And, I think it's safe to say that communicating innovation and preventing further regulatory restrictions are two major focus areas for companies with a stake in Washington. Through the merger with Public Strategies, Hill & Knowlton has began to position itself as a more viable source for clients seeking public affairs support, both in the US and globally.

It will be interesting to see how independent agencies and holding companies ranging from Publicis to Huntsworth address the changing public affairs market in the US over the next year.

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