BP. Goldman Sachs. Bank of America. When there’s a crisis, you can be sure PR help is on the way. In April it was revealed that Edelman and La Torre Communications, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based firm, had signed on to help guide Penn State through the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, helping with media relations, corporate communications and stakeholder engagement.
With reputation crises so prevalent today and organizations looking to “PR up,” what’s an agency to do when it gets a call from a potential client that could cause a reputation crisis for the agency itself?
To find out, PR News asked three agency heads what their thought processes are when considering walking into a crisis minefield, or a relationship with a not-so-savory client. What we found was a variety of philosophies, rules and perspectives on taking on controversial clients.
Huma Gruaz, president and CEO of Chicago-based Alpaytac, says organizations that are in trouble have made mistakes, and what’s important is how you get out of that mistake. “If there is human error or lower-level mismanagement, we’d consider the organization as a client,” says Gruaz. It’s the high-level cover-up scenario that has the potential to impact the Alpaytac brand that would raise a red flag, says Gruaz, plus any hesitancy on the part of the client to be transparent and make amends for their transgressions.
“If an organization called me and was willing to be transparent and honest, and are willing to work with us and not take the position that we have to lie to the media, yes, we would help them,” says Gruaz. “But we won’t become a mouthpiece of a company that’s lying.”
MEDIA STRAIGHT TALK
According to our three sources, the media is a big piece in the decision-making process when taking on a client. “We pride ourselves on strong relationship with media,” says Richard Dukas, president and CEO of New York-based Dukas Public Relations. “When we call them and send them pitches, they know we give them good sources,” says Dukas. “It takes years to build solid relationships with journalists, but trying to withhold information or giving false information for a client in trouble will quickly destroy that goodwill.”
Dukas puts potential problem clients in two different categories: organizations that are “less than stellar” and companies that come to the agency with a specific problem or crisis. Dukas says less-than-stellar clients are companies that can use some PR help but have a reputation for shady practices. In this case, Dukas asks, “Do we really want to work with these people?” The client’s ability to pay is one factor in the decision, as is the question of “can we really help them.” For a potential client in crisis, Dukas has three criteria for taking them on:
1. Is the organization trying to duck the media?
2. Has it done something unsavory or bordering on unethical?
3. Is there a chance for serious litigation around the crisis?
Three years ago his agency took on a client concerned about an insider trading situation. “They said they didn’t do anything wrong—yet the meeting took place with their lawyers in the room,” he says. The company had gotten a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter, hired Dukas PR and told them it didn’t want to be in the planned WSJ story.
“I got on the phone with the reporter and explained that the client would be unable to speak about insider trading,” says Dukas. “Sure enough, the reporter got angry with me and said ‘If they don’t speak with me things will be worse,’” then slammed the phone down. Dukas got the reporter back on the line and calmed him, saying he took the client on for that one situation and his hands were tied.
Lesson learned for Dukas: “Those aren’t the right clients for me. There are firms that will charge a big fee to do that, but it’s not good business for us.” And what happened to the client in the end? The Journal did write about them, but the company was never named in an insider trading suit.
Ned Barnett, president of Barnett Marketing Communications, has a basic question he asks himself when taking on a potential problem client: “Could I be a good advocate for them?” Based in Las Vegas, Barnett has asked himself that question quite often. “I’ve walked away from clients here that exploit women,” he says. “I couldn’t represent anyone who crosses that line.”
Another criterion is whether the client is willing to listen to the agency, says Barnett. Years ago he worked with Fleishman-Hillard representing Ford Motor Co. in the Ford Explorer rollover controversy.
“Against our advice, Ford blamed the tire company for the problem,” says Barnett. “The tire company comes back with the fact that all tires that failed were in the right rear, meaning it was a car design fault.” Ford dug itself a hole and the agency, which resigned the account, looked foolish in the process, says Barnett.
There are also reputation and agency morale considerations. That’s why Gruaz often stays away from clients who want to have their names cleared.
“I want to work on projects that build brands, rather than cleaning up a mess,” she says. That’s good not only for Alpaytac’s reputation, but for the team as well.
Dukas feels the same way. His agency shies away from clients with full-blown, public crises. But inevitably, there will be work that might be controversial and that his staff may find troubling.
“I tell them that we can’t always pick and choose every single client, and they understand that,” he says.
After all, a PR agency is— first and foremost—a business. PRN