P.R. Agency Finds Itself in Paper’s Crosshairs

It’s always interesting to see how PR principals handle criticism of their firm. Usually, it’s their clients that are under fire, but on occasion the news media will turn a critical eye toward the PR firm itself. Such was the case Sunday when The Tennessean ran a front-page story on the main section titled “How a P.R. firm to (sic) powerful tarnished its image.”

It’s hard to know how much of this negative story was due to Editor Mark Silverman still smarting from prior suggestions that the firm coaxed favorable coverage about the civic center from The Tennessean, or whether the paper really thought this story deserved such prominent coverage. Maybe it was a combination of both.

The firm, McNeely Pigott & Fox, is the largest PR firm in Tennessee, and it has represented some prominent Democratic leaders, including Karl Dean, Nashville’s current mayor. The major point of contention was the amount the agency billed the city to promote a proposed downtown convention center. The firm ended up resigning the account.

“…the firm hired to help temper criticism wound up fueling it with an open-ended contract that sent a whopping $458,000 bill to the city in just over a year,” The Tennessean reported. “It was a stunning fall that has raised questions about the entire convention center project, Mayor Karl Dean’s oversight of it, and his close association with the P.R. firm that helped get him elected….”

Well, I have to agree that sounds like a lot of money, and I’d be happy to promote the convention center for a lot less. In fairness to McNeely Pigott & Fox, it’s not clear the extent of work the agency did for those fees and how much time its staff spent on the project. But, whenever you get into large amounts of money going out of government to a firm with significant connections to many of the key players, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows.

Dealing with the perception of having taken advantage of the city through cozy connections is, in my view, the biggest challenge McNeely Pigott & Fox faces.

How effectively it will counter this criticism and weather the storm remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that The Tennessean article disclosed the firm worked with the paper in 2007. No word on what McNeely Pigott & Fox charged the paper for its services, and whether The Tennessean was happy with its work.

I can’t help but wonder if the firm had a crisis management plan in case something like this happened (the article said, “They never saw this crisis coming…”), and if so how well it’s working for them now?

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

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