Representing controversial clients is a slippery slope.

I’m a firm believer that, in the court of public opinion, a controversial client is innocent until Pat_robertson_devil_sign proven guilty. I also believe he or she deserves the very best representation possible. That said, some prospective clients are toxic and invite more trouble than they’re worth.

I’m reminded of the terrific image and reputation bashing inflicted on Hill & Knowlton in the early 1990s, when the firm decided to represent one highly controversial client after another. The carnage reached its apex (perhaps nadir is more appropriate) when Hill & Knowlton took on an image and awareness campaign for the government of Kuwait. Almost immediately afterwards, they were accused of ‘staging’ fake genocides to heighten worldwide distaste for Saddam Hussein’s Machiavellian machinations. It was an event that, whether true or not, inspired the Hollywood movie, ‘Wag the Dog’. H&K’s decision to represent a raft of highly controversial accounts precipitated a mass exodus of blue-chip clients (who didn’t want to be associated with a public relations firm that was caught in the crosshairs of negative news). The firm also lost top notch counselors, who disagreed with H&K’s stance on a moral and ethical basis.

As a proud alumnus of a kinder, gentler H&K, I’m pleased to see the firm has finally rebounded and reclaimed its rightful position as a top global player, but it took lots of blood, sweat and tears to execute the turnaround.

I mention all this because I see that 5W is representing Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice in its efforts to halt construction of the controversial Ground Zero mosque. As mentioned above, Mr. Robertson’s entity deserves the very best public relations support it can afford. But, at what cost to the firm? In its defense, 5W has never shied away from representing clients that most mainstream PR firms would avoid like the plague. But, does such representation jeopardize existing client relationships? Will it alienate employees who see the issue as a First Amendment right that has nothing whatsoever to do with public relations? Time will tell.

In our 15 years of business, we’ve tried to avoid highly controversial clients (falling prey only twice in my memory). Thankfully, neither relationship cost us clients or employees. In fact, with the latter, we were quite transparent and suggested that anyone with reservations could opt out of actual account work. Several took us up on the offer.

But, rather than place a firm in harm’s way, why choose to represent a potentially toxic client? The short-term gain in billings and notoriety will most certainly be offset by the long-term unease among clients and employees alike. As a former employer of mine liked to say, “It’s a classic lose-lose.”

4 thoughts on “Representing controversial clients is a slippery slope.

  1. “Excellent points, ghost. Superior media relations skills are, in fact, a fast track to a management position in most PR firms. And, as you mention, the skills needed to sell a story idea to a cynical reporter aren’t transferable to managing people. That said, I believe the best agencies such as Ketchum, Weber, etc., are offering more sophisticated management training courses. We’ve upgraded our training as well. Nonetheless, you’re spot on in saying PR as an industry has a long way to go. This is a great subject for a future blog,BTW.Thanks.”

  2. From a recruiting standpoint, PR has to do a lot of things to legitimize itself. Back in my day, no one went to college to become a PR man; rather, it was something one “fell” into when other, more attractive avenues were closed. Having universities now offering it as a major is a good, progressive step forward. Beyond that, though, PR tends to have a management problem, in that too many agencies are run like glorified family businesses whose management structures (I’m using this term very loosely, mind you) would dissuade most competent workers from hanging around too long. More than anything else, though, there’s the inescapable reality that being able to pitch a good story doesn’t make one an effective manager of people. And if you can’t manage people, you can’t keep them.

  3. 5W once represented Joe Francis, the “Girls Gone Wild” creep. THis week they signed Tiki Barber too.

  4. Ronn (sic) Torossian has made his living on clients nobody else would touch. His firm reflects that.