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.

Paper Opens Its Doors to Readers

A Nashville TV station’s recent report about high fees a PR firm charged the city for its attempts to obtain favorable publicity for a planned new convention center evidently touched a nerve with Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman.

In a column titled “Tennessean coverage isn’t for sale,” Mr. Silverman noted that the TV report and subsequent comments on blogs “suggested that the firm coaxed favorable coverage about the civic center from The Tennessean; some bloggers and story chat participants even suggested that a Tennessean staffer was paid to write positive reports. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our stories and opinion columns cannot be bought.”

I’ll have more to say about paying reporters for favorable coverage in my next post, but for now I’m going to focus on another aspect of his column.

Mr. Silverman went on to explain how his paper works with PR firms and its commitment to ethics. He also described the lengths the paper went to in raising questions and digging for facts related to the convention center proposal. You can read his full column here: http://tennessean.com/article/20090809/COLUMNIST0113/908090331/1748

What especially caught my eye was the last paragraph, where he made an offer I wish more newspaper editors would make to their readers: Anyone interested in seeing how news decisions are made is welcome to attend a news meeting. All a person has to do is e-mail him to make arrangements.

I hope there are many who take him up on his offer, which he says he’s made before, because it would be an enlightening experience for those not familiar with this process. Reporters likely will be on their best behavior with outsiders observing them, but seeing how stories are chosen and what factors play into the news-selection process can only help strengthen relationships with the paper’s readers.

I applaud Mr. Silverman for his openness and his efforts to educate readers. Sounds like something a PR person might come up, doesn’t it?

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