Ferguson Hires a PR Agency, But the Move Generates Bad PR

Image: parenthub.com.au.

The City of Ferguson has hired the PR agency Common Ground Public Relations to help its communication department deal with the ongoing turmoil. But the hiring has already raised some troubling questions about the decision.

The agency, based in a St. Louis suburb, appears to be staffed entirely by white people, according to the photographs of staff members on the agency’s website.

“We're just handling media queries and that's all I can really say right now," senior account executive Nina Kult told TPM.

In the wake of the racial tensions that have engulfed Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the city might have considered expanding its PR tent to bring in more diverse communications agencies, maybe even a black-owned PR firm. Isn't a broader perspective exactly what the people who run Ferguson need?

If Common Ground really has only white folks on its team, it begs the question whether the city recognizes the severity of the situation (the Missouri National Guard was called in Monday to help quell what has been nightly outbursts of violence in Ferguson).

The decision is a stark reminder that, in many cases, even PR needs PR. "The cobbler’s children have no shoes" has long been a legitimate knock on the PR business. And here’s a perfect example.

Common Ground may not have been in a position to turn down the business from the City of Ferguson. But the agency can be proactive and bring in PR partners that, taken together, would better reflect the demographic makeup of Ferguson and have more credibility with the public (not to mention the global media outlets that have descended on the town).

Otherwise, hiring Common Ground may just add to the nagging sense that the official response has been tone deaf. The name of the agency alone may not go very far in reducing the turmoil.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

9 responses to “Ferguson Hires a PR Agency, But the Move Generates Bad PR


    As a Strategic Public Relations Consultant, I feel insulted. It’s moves like these that give PR a bad name.

    1. The City of Ferguson officials are either in denial of the real issue or living in an alternate universe.
    2. They don’t need PR. They need common sense!
    3. INSANITY is doing the same thing the same way and somehow expecting a different result.
    4. The City of Ferguson officials need to swallow their pride. Get help from other police department with better policing method, and the desired results will appear. Period.

  2. Similar to the comment below, I feel insulted as a pr professional, but probably for different reasons. By writing this article, you’re further perpetuating the race issue – in the opposite direction. There is no excuse for racism against any race, and two wrongs don’t make a right. I think the negative comments were directed at the city rather than the agency employees, but I feel bad for those professionals working for Common Ground that not only have their work cut out for them handling the city’s account, they’re also probably feeling attacked for being white. I’m sure they’re a group of intelligent professionals just trying to do their work, and regardless of the color of their skin, let them do their job without racial judgement.

    1. As sad as that sounds. Optics count for a lot here. And we ALL know how lily white the PR industry is, so an all-white agency isn’t surprising but given the situation, yeah they are being tone deaf. I would argue that it isn’t a black PR agency because that doesn’t mean they’re culturally competent, what they needed was an multi-cultural public affairs agency, that understands communicating issues to diverse publics.

      1. You got to ask your self how un biased can this PR firm be? If they can’t see both sides of the situtation. You have a all white agency, trying to figure out how a black community feels an how they will preseve things they put out in the public! Now how ignorant is that, you ask your self! If you want BOTH sides to be visible, you have to be given Both sides of the story! That means all firms like these should have equality in their hiring practice’s! Don’t blame it on the black community if they just point out the FACTS that you to blind to see or understand “sad in the South”! An if the Police Dept. or the Town board is to ignorant to hire an diverse agency, don’t blame the black community for pointing out the FACTS of it all! If that Agency was intelligent professionals, they would have figured this problem out long ago an made sure their agency was NOT all white! Ignorance be gets Ignorance is what my grandma use to tell me all the time as a kid!

    2. I’m sorry you feel insulted but that shows the large gulf in the white/non-white understanding of race. If you think by not discussing or addressing a problem, it goes away, you’re fooling yourself. If one doesn’t talk about dad’s alcoholism, will it go away? Get better? No–it needs to be addressed. It’s same with racial issues. Another example: The all male senate committee discussing women’s sexual health. Yeah, they’re human, too, but don’t you think women across the country didn’t say, “WTF?!” Being of an affected race, gender, special interest, DOES make a difference. There are generations of history, culture, perspective that need to be acknowledged and incorporated. It’s about respect AND crafting successful solutions. Without understanding, the plans created have a greater likelihood of not meeting goals and will worsen the situation. Not good for Ferguson, its residents or the PR firm.

  3. I’m going to look at this from a different point of view. The racial unrest has provided
    the City of Ferguson a perfect opportunity to bring more attention to their
    city. Yes, so far everything has been negative. However, there are so many
    groups and volunteers that could assist in a positive manner. City leaders
    should utilize this energy to bring change to their city, which may provide
    economic growth as well. Ask people for help, ask them to contribute to making
    Ferguson a better place. A great communications team can use the media to
    highlight the positives of the city, as long as they have a proper plan in
    place and the right people to deliver the message.

  4. What a load of rubbish. You are essentially saying that every PR firm needs African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women, handicapped people, gays and lesbians, color blind and dyslexic, people struggling with obesity etc. to be able to work with issues related to these groups? Do we also need poor PR people to fight poverty with words??

    1. Yes Jesper, that is correct. If you were truly a talented PR/Communications pro, you would understand the value of a diverse team and access to diverse consultant partners. Plus, the difference between diverse groups like African Americans/Hispanics/Asians etc. and standard White people is that we speak the language of “general market America” (as we have to thrive in this culture) as well as provide special insight into engaging the communities we come from. So…we are hella valuable.

  5. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says you can’t make decisions about hiring based on race. If the City of Ferguson had attempted to conduct a national search to hire black PR practitioners, it would be a violation of US employment law. While religion, sex, or national origin may be considered a bona fide
    occupational qualification in narrow contexts, race can never be a BFOQ. Common Ground could seek to partner with another firm that happens to have more African Americans on staff, but Common Ground can’t make hiring decisions based on race, either. Period. This isn’t an issue of being “tone deaf.” It’s a legal issue.

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