Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The unprofessional professional?

Mark Penn (left) has been a trusted adviser and aide to the Clintons since the mid 1990s, it has been a sideline alongside to his proper job of running public relations company Burson-Marsteller, a global giant in the sector who has the mission statement of providing a 'gold standard' to clients. But will Penn's credibility be damaged by his performance serving Hillary Clinton? There are a number of areas of the campaign where the "Monday-morning quarterbackers" (media pundits that dissect campaigns) have found Penn at fault: his over confidence in her as the obvious winner, the reliance on the Clinton name and lack of understanding of the public mood and desire for change being the major areas. It was a conflict of interests that sealed his fate, he was negotiating a free trade agreement with Columbia that Bush is trying to drive through Congress that the Democrats and Clinton in particular oppose wholeheartedly; hence Bush's urgency. Its seems the PR man got it wrong on a number of counts; is this surprising.

Well maybe and maybe not. While Penn may have the experience of managing the communication and reputation of millions of household brands (be they consumer goods or nations) he may not fully understand public engagement with politics. We do not get bored of all brands in a product sector, maybe one brand, but not them all. We do not desire new brands to appear that offer something totally different. Importantly we also are likely to trust most high street brands. These things are different in politics and in the US in particular at the moment. The polls seem to show a boredom with the brands and what they represent, thus much is focused on the character and persona of the candidate for presidency. Second the reason for Obama's success is the desire for systemic change by a significant amount of voters; the only question they face is whether Obama is the right man to change the system. And trust, well who trusts politicians? PR does not normally face such a complex and hostile environment, also it does no normally overtly play with negative messages, and you can have as many clients at the same time as you can handle and there are rarely conflicts of interests, especially not on ideological grounds.

All this raises an interesting question are the communications, marketing and public relations professionals really equipped to work within modern political campaigning? Do they really have the skills and knowledge required and are they able to transfer and adapt their skills to suit the context of politics? A big question!

1 comment:

Mark Hanson said...

Mark P is still pulling the strings though. Similar to Mandelson in Tony Blair's Labour leadership campaign when he was running things but nobody was supposed to know he was even involved. I think he had a codename - Bobby!