SpitzerPenn, Slimy PR

It’s a very short step from Elliot Spitzer to Mark Penn, the Burson-Marsteller honcho who was playing both sides of the Columbian trade deal street.

Penn represents the worst of our business. “We can do ya,” my mentor Dennis McGrath used to call this mindless, moral-less, yes-sir kind of PR. Anything the client asks. Say trade with Columbia is good? Full speed ahead. Oh, now another client says trade with Columbia is bad? Funny, that’s what we think now, and let’s trash that trade. Bark bark, wag wag, we can do ya.

Not a surprise it was Penn who crafted Hillary Clinton’s campaign approach by reading polls. Not a surprise he got in yelling matches with staffers who said Hillary should put her own credentials forward when Penn wanted Clinton to trash Obama. This is the manipulative side of PR — manipulate, create an impression based not on what’s real but on whatever will work. It’s mendacious bullshit.

Howard Burson, founder of BM, said about preparing Q&As for interviews with reporters, “There are no Qs, only As,” a former Burson staffer told me recently. Don’t answer the question — Whatever the reporter asks, answer with what you want to say. I hear that way too much in our business. It’s the manipulative side of PR — and I don’t think it works in the long run. I say answer the question, then connect to the point you want to make. Or else people will think you’re a Spitzer. Or a Penn.

I hope it’s not a coincidence that the Penn strategy has, in the long run, brought Clinton only to second place. Manipulation only works so long, I’d like to think. PR bullshit, rather than clear and honest communication, gets you some short-term success, but the reputation of a snake. Spitzer, Penn? Arrogant, the rules don’t apply to me kinda guys. The worst of politics, the worst of PR. Whoring either way.

— Bruce Benidt

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4 thoughts on “SpitzerPenn, Slimy PR

  1. jloveland says:

    Conflicts get increasingly difficult to manage with size. With my army of one, I have to turn down quite a bit of business because of conflicts. So imagine what it is like for agencies with hundreds of accounts. Boggles the mind.

  2. Dennis Lang says:

    Discussion remindful of a recent “On the Media” broadcast (April 4): “Convenient Untruths”. Author Farheed Manjoo not only explores our predisposition to tune out facts that don’t jive with our beliefs but our tendency to selectively interpret facts in order support our beliefs. In the current world of blogs and otherwise endless media outlets truth can be manipulated and invented. As an example he cites “The Swift Boat Vets for Truth” to change Kerry’s war record. No reputable news agency would touch it because it lacked evidence. By the time it was disseminated throughout the internet however the falsehood had achieved a life of its own and widely regarded as true. How do we become genuinely informed when everything is potentially fake? With this said, are you suggesting that it isn’t pre-requisite of the P/R adept in the interest of his client to gauge the sensibility of his audience and provide a message that comports with it?

  3. Joe, you’ve worked in agencies, government and on your own. Isn’t one of the joys of working for oneself that you get to turn down business that’s a conflict, rather than try to convince yourself and your colleagues that there is no conflict?

    We independents still need to pay the mortgage, but we also get to have a real quick ethics committee meeting — with ourselves — to see if we pass our own smell test. Well, we don’t pass that test on days when we have no client meetings and therefore skip the shower, but that’s another story…

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