Mark Penn has found yet another way to embarrass his storied employer...
A story in this week’s New York Times, "Wall St. Journal Gives an Ethics Green Light to a P.R. Executive's Column" , reminded me again as to how far the practice of public relations has changed (and not necessarily in a good way) since I first entered the profession forty-one years ago fresh out of grad school as an assistant account executive on third avenue in New York. A naive kid from Kansas, I’d been offered a job with what was considered at that time the largest and most prestigious PR firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller…and boy, did I have a lot to learn.
I learned almost immediately that the hard work of PR, media relations or press coverage as we called it then, was the backbone of any good PR campaign, and it was done in the trenches. That good press coverage, positive press coverage, was the measurement of successfully serving your client. I still vividly remember those weekly “bogie meetings” with the GM of the New York office to see whether we had individually met goals for column inches of coverage for our clients. Almost of equal importance to new recruits to the Burson team, were the admonitions to learn to write a great lead for every pitch or release we drafted, as well as keep a low profile, i.e., never become part of the story.
Times have obviously changed. Burson-Marsteller, which long held out its independence and practiced both the art and science of PR at the highest level, has been bought and sold a couple of times into the mega-world of communication conglomerates, and is no longer the largest, nor the most prestigious public relations agency in the world. The firm now promotes itself for its “PR consultancy” not its press capabilities. And by the looks of it, Burson-Marsteller’s latest president and CEO, Mark Penn, continues to find ways to abdicate his responsibilities of both sound judgment as well as that old company admonition about becoming a part of the story.
Penn has not only become part of the story, his ego seems to demand he become the story itself. First, it was the fiasco of his inept creative leadership of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign (high-profile firing, anyone?) and now he’s writing a regular column for the WSJ with Burson staffers contributing for their mutual clients (high-profile conflict, anyone?)
As both a former “Burson-person” (yes, that’s what we were proudly called) and a current agency CEO, I can’t think of many more ways for Penn to exhibit his ineptness in leadership or professionalism. With my apologies to great historical quotes… “I know Harold Burson, I served with him; and he’s a friend of mine. And Mark Penn, you’re no Harold Burson.”
It’s bad enough that this proud old agency that has served so many clients so well over the last fifty-six years no longer practices nor uses “positive press coverage” as it’s modern day metric for success; but to have Mark Penn as its standard bearer, doubles the embarrassment.