PR firm leaders react to Washington unrest

Here’s what agency heads from Hill+Knowlton, Ketchum, Weber Shandwick, Brunswick, Steinreich Communications and Seven Letter are doing.

WASHINGTON: PR agency leaders reacted quickly to Wednesday’s violence in the nation’s capital, reassuring nervous employees and clients and offering perspective on the unprecedented events.

In emails to staff and messages posted to company blogs, agency leaders reviewed the situation and gave updates on the status of Washington staff.

“First and foremost, I want to assure you that our people in Washington, DC, are accounted for, safe and taking the necessary precautions to stay out of harm’s way,” wrote AnnaMaria DeSalva, Hill+Knowlton Strategies global CEO and chair in a post to the H+K website Wednesday night. “This has been a difficult and disturbing day for many of us. I saw shock and pain on the faces of my colleagues who, like me, could not believe our constitutional principles could be so distorted and that our democracy itself could come under threat.”

Ketchum’s global president and CEO Mike Doyle posted a message on the agency’s internal platform called Workplace on Wednesday afternoon, also assuring everyone that Washington staff were safe and offering help.

“Our DC marketplace leaders have confirmed that our colleagues there are safe and accounted for, including those who live close to the Capitol,” he wrote. “As many of you are already doing, please check in with your clients to ensure they have the support or counsel they need from you and the agency and raise your hand if you need support...”

Doyle added that “these are the moments when showing up for each other and our clients matters most.”

Ketchum also paused sharing content on its channels, an agency spokeswoman said, and advised clients to do the same when it came to campaign activations. 

In a message posted to the agency's intranet and emailed to BCW Group global staff on Thursday afternoon, global CEO Donna Imperato said she watched "with horror...what was a very sad day for our country."

"I am passionate about defending and encouraging freedom, collaboration and inclusivity," she added, "and I know that all of us at BCW fight for fairness and freedom every day. And we respect our different opinions and perspectives. That’s what makes a great company."

Other agency leaders, such as Weber Shandwick’s Paul Massey, the Washington-based global lead of social impact and president of public affairs sub agency Powell Tate, urged his team to prioritize self-care.

“It’s hard to find the right words to capture the surreal and deeply disturbing events underway in our city today,” Massey said in an email sent to staff on Wednesday. “And I’m certain that many of us are feeling a wide range of emotions and unease. It’s fine to step away from work, or the news.”

He added that safety is a top priority and noted that staffers should reach out to him or any other managers if they need help or just someone to talk to.

Massey’s sentiments were mirrored by Weber’s North American president Joy Farber Kolo in an email she sent to her team a short time later.

“We believe in being there for each other,” she said. “We are thinking of all of you and especially our colleagues in DC, who are thankfully safe in their homes. During this tumultuous time, please keep yourselves safe and connected. Please reach out to me or your manager or your HR partner if you feel the need for any support.”

In his email to his staff, Robert Moran, a Brunswick partner based in Washington and the global head of its research arm, offered perspective on the violence gleaned from work the firm has done. 

“More than almost any other Americans, we, as researchers, have a deep appreciation of our country, warts and all,” Moran wrote in an email. “We have surveyed Americans and moderated focus groups in every nook and cranny of the country. We have listened to Americans from every walk of life, trying to see the world through their eyes. And that kind of deep insight creates a deeper love. What I see today on TV is not the America I have seen in a long career in public opinion research, in focus group facilities and cities across our country.”

In attempting to explain the events to both clients and employees, Moran shared data showing that society has become more “polarized as niche communications channels overwhelm mass communications channels.”

“The data shows that an increasing percentage of Americans feel that violence is justified to advance their political objectives,” he told PRWeek. “Corporate communications should call for calm, the rule of law and a focus on civility and what unites us as a country.”

Wednesday’s violence was proof of the power of communications, Steinreich Communications CEO Stan Steinreich told his staff Thursday morning.

“If we ever questioned the meaning of ‘words matter,’ yesterday’s horrific events in Washington must be an indelible reminder that we carry forward forever,” he wrote. “The wrong words lead to hate, incitement and fear whether your political position is to the left or right. The right words bring joy, understanding and engagement. Today, the morning after we witnessed the takeover of the Capitol, there is no more important time to remind ourselves of the sacred role we play to assure that we and our clients understand the power of every word we write and utter.” 

The day was especially disconcerting for firms staffed with former political comms people, a point Erik Smith, the founding partner and CEO of Seven Letter, made to his staff in an email on Wednesday night.

“It will take weeks and months to totally process what happened today but for those of us based in the nation’s capital, it is personal,” he wrote. “We live and work in Washington, DC, and this is more than a political issue for us. This is our home and the aftermath of what happened today will disrupt our lives and work in ways that are unpredictable.”

Thursday, PRSA 2021 chair Michelle Olson, posted a reminder to the organization’s website pointing out that comms pros are an important part of public debates. She also reminded PRSA members of the efforts journalists on the ground in Washington were making to cover the unrest.

“Timely, accurate and truthful information — in context — is the foundation of our role as communicators,” Olson wrote on the PRSA website. “Yesterday’s actions show what can happen when the channels of communication are compromised with mis/disinformation.”

She added that the members of the media who so bravely reported from inside and outside the United States Capitol must be thanked and supported.

This story was updated with comments from Imperato.

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