Abernathy MacGregor opens Washington DC office

The office will be headed by Sarah Knakmuhs.

Abernathy MacGregor CEO Tom Johnson
Abernathy MacGregor CEO Tom Johnson

WASHINGTON: Abernathy MacGregor has opened an office in Washington, DC, headed by MD Sarah Knakmuhs.

While Knakmuhs is leading the new office, Mike Hotra and Liz Sidoti were hired as MDs there. They all started at the firm over the past several weeks.

Abernathy MacGregor CEO Tom Johnson said this is the first time the 35-year-old agency has ever had an office in the capital. The firm also has offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, Texas.

"If you think about the world we live in today and how increasingly interconnected we are – how there’s this convergence of business, politics and media – it’s hard to come up with a big situation that clients come to us with that doesn’t have some DC angle, be it regulatory, be it congressional, be it how public opinions are shaped," Johnson said.

Abernathy MacGregor, he added, has been in discussions with parent company Havas Group about opening the office for about two years. However, the agency didn’t want to announce it established a presence in the market for the sake of merely "hanging a shingle."

"We wanted to do it differently than what we’ve seen done," Johnson said. "Our goal was to create a practice there led by senior, experienced people, who brought backgrounds not just in government relations and public affairs, but also had strong backgrounds in financial comms and understood the media environment really well."

Johnson added he wanted people with that background so they could be better integrated in Abernathy’s existing offerings, which include high-stakes situations, such as M&A, crisis, IR and other areas.

Knakmuhs is joins Abernathy MacGregor from Altria Group, where she was VP of government affairs and public policy, according to a statement from Abernathy. Sidoti is coming to Abernathy from BP, where she was the head of U.S. comms. Hotra was formerly the VP of public affairs at PhRMA and a 13-year vet of APCO Worldwide.

All three MDs report to Johnson and president Carina Davidson, who was named to her position in May 2018.

Abernathy MacGregor doesn’t have a physical office yet in the market, but plans to open one soon, and it’s in the process of hiring junior staff to support its MDs. The office isn’t opening with an anchor client. Sidoti, Hotra and Knakmuhs are being integrated into account teams in other offices.

Johnson noted the increasing dichotomy in the world of specialized corporate PR, which includes such firms as Sard Verbinnen, Finsbury, Brunswick Group, FTI Consulting, Joele Frank and ICR.

While some remain laser-focused on dominating one area, such as M&A, others are intent on actively pursuing growth in new ways by building out capabilities, opening offices and pooling their resources with partner agencies.

"What you’re seeing out of us is very deliberate growth, with the differentiating factor being that it will be integrated growth," Johnson said. "There’s a rush in this industry to do everything and we can do it everywhere. What clients are telling us is they just want the best and smartest advice by people that know the space they operate in."

Abernathy operates within the AMO Network, which will receive a $100 million investment from Havas to be deployed over the next five years. Johnson said no other agency in the network had plans to open a DC office, so Abernathy built its own.

This month, Abernathy hired Heidi Crowe as director of research and information services, a newly created role, according to a firm statement. Previously, Crowe was a partner and head of research at Kekst CNC.

In April, Abernathy hired Eileen Cohen, a former MD at JPMorgan Asset Management and chair of the North America Governance Committee, as a senior counselor with a focus on corporate governance advisory and shareholder engagement.

LLYC, formerly known as Llorente & Curenca, exited the AMO Network and joined a partnership with Glover Park Group, Hering Schuppener and Finsbury earlier this year.

Editor's note: This story was updated on September 10 with additional information regarding Knakmuhs, Sidoti and Hotra's reporting structure.

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