Lately, PR professionals have found themselves part of the mainstream news as their high-profile clients battle controversy – not the ideal place for crisis communications pros.
The president of the Killeen Furtney Group, Joann Killeen, for example, was interviewed by Larry King to explain why she dropped client Nadya Suleman, mother of recent octuplets, following death threats. Another firm appears to have taken pains to stress its non-involvement with controversial Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL). Political consultant Bud Jackson, of The Jackson Group, apparently sent out a mass e-mail to colleagues and media, saying that although he did represent the embattled senator at one point, the congressman's current PR counsel comes from elsewhere.
PR firms have the right to represent whomever they wish, like lawyers, and, similarly, have the right to drop any client. However, doing so on national TV or in a mass e-mail is ill-advised. Although all companies should take care to protect their reputations – vital to winning new business – a noisy exit almost never helps the case. PR consultants are hired for what they can do for a client, not what they didn't do.
Representing a celebrity or high-profile client always carries risk. Risk, of course, can garner great rewards or great disappointment, as Wall Street can attest. Every agency makes a decision on whether to take on a client based on a number of factors, such as budget and culture. But once a client is signed, absent any unethical behavior or laws broken, the agency needs to stand by its client until the end. If an agency must sever the relationship, it should be handled discreetly. If an explanation is necessary, keep it strategic – letting key personnel or other clients know with a phone call. Please, leave the megaphone for client pitches.