Miscellany: PR firms and their clients

PR firms and their clients

While it may surprise many people, PR firms do have internal debates and debates with others about whether they should take on specific clients or not.

Most Australian PR companies, for instance, won’t work for tobacco companies although the fact that doing so precludes taking on work for State and Federal health departments is a powerful encouragement.

One view – enunciated by people like Ian Kortlang – is that PR firms are just like barristers and should act on the cab rank principle. The other view – which I share incidentally – is that the analogy is nonsense because the constraints on barristers don’t apply to PR firms and, anyway, PR firms have a right and obligation to choose.

It’s normally hard to ascertain what particular PR firms do and don’t do because they don’t often disclose clients or discuss their client choices.

These thoughts were prompted by a recent discussion at a meeting of PR practitioners about the James Hardie case and the role of their spinners – including two leading Australian PR firms, Jackson Wells Morris and Gavin Anderson & Company. Who were their other clients and what did they think of the situation? We couldn’t answer the second but – thanks to www.disinfopedia.org we were able to answer the first. This website has been set up by the US Center for Media & Democracy – publishers of the wonderful free e-newsletter, Weekly Spin – and is an excellent starting point if you want information about PR firms and their clients.

Now it should be said that client lists need to be handled with extreme caution. They can often be historical rather than current. They don’t stipulate the nature, duration and scope of any client relationship. Without this data they can be misleading. For instance, on the face of it a list that includes two competing companies could look like a conflict of interest when it is not at all. Many companies – including my former company – don’t publish or disclose their client lists at all. Jackson Wells Morris is one that does on the other hand.

The second reason for caution is that you don’t know why the client hired the firm in the first place. For instance, it would be absolutely inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the sort of issues, the nature of work or any motivations at all from the presence of any company on a client list. In particular it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusion that any of the companies on the lists had experienced, or might experience, issues similar to those Hardie has. Many clients also employ different PR firms for different purposes. Nevertheless, who’s who is still interesting. So here goes:

According to www.disinfopedia.org GA’s clients include: ABN AMRO Asset Management, American Express, Austereo, Australia Post, Australian Agribusiness Fund, Australian Constructors Association, Australian Dental Association, Australian Rugby Union, Australian Vice Chancellors Committee, AWB Ltd, Baulderstone Hornibrook, Becton Dickinson, Bonlac, Brisbane Airport, Cable & Wireless, Central Equity, Chesterton International, City of Sydney, Clayton Utz, CSFB, Deloittes, Department of Health-Medicare, Eastern Distributor Motorway, Eli Lilly, Firbank Grammar School, Fonterra, Foxtel, Game Fishing Assoc of Australia, Hemophilia Foundation, Department of Health and Aging, HIH Liquidator, ICAP, Indigenous Land Corporation, Indonesia Tourism and Culture Board, Integral Energy, James Hardie, JP Morgan, Kelloggs, Lane Cove Tunnel, Liability Reform  Steering Group,  Lucas Heights, Mars, McDonalds, McKinsey, Merck, Monash University, Morgan Stanley, Meat New Zealand, National Australia Bank, Novartis, Nutrasweet, OPSM, Oracle, Orbis, Paul Batchelor, PBL, Pfizer, PwC, Promina, Property Council of Australia, Qantas, Real Estate Institute, Standards Australia, State Street, Sunbeam, Sydney Airport, Towers Perrin, UNICEF, Verizon, Vodaphone, Volkswagen and Zenith Corporation. There are other names  – Australian and overseas – on the disinfopedia list as well.

JWM client list, again according to www.disinfopedia.org , includes: Australian Airports Association, Australian Nursing Homes & Extended Care Association, Insurance Council of Australia, Investment and Financial Services Association, Medicines Australia, NRMA, Tenix, RMIT, University of Sydney, Clubs NSW, Warner Bros, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Deutsche Bank, Lend Lease, National Australia Bank, the Rivkin Report, Orlando Wyndham, Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Chubb Insurance, Colgate Palmolive, British American Tobacco, Fairfax, News Limited, Achohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, Mission Australia, Aventis, Novartis, Pfizer, KBR, Qantas,. Hydro Tasmania and others (including some pro bonos such as the Bundanon Trust).

What does it all mean? I know little about Gavin Anderson, despite once sharing a common part-owner, and from what I did know always thought they were prone to wankery and self-promotion. JWM would have been a great outfit to buy and John Wells is astute and good company. Perhaps it means nothing beyond a minor contribution to more transparency in the industry.

PS: Before anyone at either firm – or anywhere else – decides that the appropriate answer to this is to drag up some of my own firm’s past problems I freely disclose that we got ourselves involved in a messy issue as a result of the actions of an individual. The settlement exonerated the firm. Mea culpa needed, therefore, for incompetence on the CEO’s part but not for any ethical sins.

Arts (1)

The Major Performing Arts Board has announced a major review of corporate governance guidelines for various arts bodies.

Being on a number of arts boards which have excellent corporate governance (appropriate committee structures, risk management strategies, independent audits, robust business planning systems etc etc) practices the review seems to Miscellany to be both sensible and relatively easy to comply with.

However, there is some irony involved in the announcement. The MPAB Chair is Ian Renard – an excellent Melbourne University Chancellor, former very hard-working and successful State Library of Victoria Chair, outstanding lawyer, world expert on riparian rights………..and a former AMP Director who, we suspect, must have been quite ecstatic when he removed himself from that Board a few years ago. It just reminds us that – for all the talk about alleged unworldliness in the arts – the arts probably still needs to be selective in adapting business sector experiences to the arts.

Arts (2)

Last week The Melbourne International Arts Festival thanked Robyn Archer for three great years as Artistic Director (BTW the author has an interest in MIAF as President).

During the night Age Arts Editor, Ray Gill, presented the annual Age Critics Award to the performance the Age critics considered the outstanding act in the 2004 Festival. While the standards of criticism in Australia as a whole are generally not great, The Age award – voted on by people like Hilary Crampton and John Slavin – is considered worth winning.

But, chatting after to a friend from the US, they mentioned a difference between arts and the media here and there. In the US critics tend to pay for their tickets to performances they review – just as restaurant critics in Australia both pay and try to be anonymous in their dining. In Australia, on the whole, critics tend to get free tickets. Finance pages – which are the most spin-drenched and sourced pages in most newspapers – always disclose journalists’ shareholdings. Travel pages disclose if the writer was a guest of the organizers of the tour or not. Yet crits don’t have any such acknowledgment. Sporting events are the same. News organizations argue that this is not an area where declarations or payment are needed because they are covering an event as news. Arts bodies argue that without free tickets many worthy shows would never get publicity and all Australian festivals organizers are delighted by the support they get from media such as The Age. In Melbourne we would be in diabolical without it.

After a few more glasses friend and I agreed: the US media needs to be more fastidious about the small things to obscure their spectacular sins on the big things!

The UN and the oil scandal

“The witch-hunt against Kofi Annan and the United Nations over the Iraq oil-for-food scandal is, quite simply, a scandal all on its own. The leaders of this lynch mob in the US Congress and the rightwing commentariat are not gunning for Mr Annan so much as trying to destroy the UN as an institution. That would be a disaster – for all of us, including, especially, the US”.

Now if Kevin Rudd had said that the Murdoch media right wing attack dogs would be savaging him for endangering the alliance and demanding his resignation.

Fortunately for Kevin – if sadly for Australia – he didn’t say it. It was The Financial Times weekend editorial this week.

The editorial also pointed out that all of the roughly 36,000 contracts were approved by a UN Security Council sub-committee dominated by the US and the UK. There was not one objection to oil-pricing scams even though UN staff brought them to the attention of the committee on no fewer than 70 occasions.

Miscellany doesn’t pretend to know how much substance there is in the various allegations. But we do know that many of them were originally sourced from a UK banker working with the famous Mr Chalabi – source of so much misleading information on WMD.

Governing Iraq

Many claim that Iraq is being governed from Washington – not from Baghdad. While this is undoubtedly true in many respects it is profoundly wrong in one sense – if Iraq is being governed from anywhere it is largely (in geographic terms) from Amman.

The weekend FT reports that diplomatic staff, and many elements of the Iraqi government, can be found in Jordan along with hundreds of millions of dollars of Iraq reconstruction money. It quotes the Iraqi minister for human rights as saying Amman was more convenient as a location because “we don’t have direct connection between Baghdad and the rest of the world.”  If you want to catch Iraqi PM, Iyad Allawi, you are also more likely to find him there too.

Another example of the coalition of the willing’s remarkable Middle Eastern success.