Political Hedge Money

Near the end of “Michael Clayton,” the lawyer played by George Clooney approached his boss played by Sydney Pollack with a document that would cast a long-time client in a most egregious and indefensible light. Pollack turned to Clooney and matter-of-factly quipped that he knew this client had problems from day one, but the law firm has billed $10 million in fees to date and “isn’t this what we do?”

The client lists of every major PR firm invariably contain a few eyebrow-raising entries. Imagine repping the Catholic church on the abortion issue, the post-9/11 Saudi government, big tobacco, big oil…Britney Spears? The more civilized of these firms have policies exempting an employee from working on a piece of business to which he or she has a personal or ethical conflict.

Even so, the prospect of reaping large PR fees almost always trumps any societal or ideological consideration. (They all can’t be Fenton.) Many large firms have even figured out how to extract fees from both sides of an issue through the establishment of internal firewalls and wholly-owned “conflict” agencies. And all have on staff senior professionals from both sides of the political aisle because…you never know.

I was nevertheless surprised last week to see my former firm caught in this seemingly paradoxical scenario. During more than a decade with Burson-Marsteller, I often was reminded of the firm’s policy forbidding the representation of politicians. Political issues, sure, but no political candidates, even though many of the firm’s employees once worked in the Beltway or local state houses. If one wished to work on a campaign, they did so on their own time or took a leave of absence.

That all apparently changed with the anointment of political pollster Mark Penn as B-M CEO. Penn doubles as the Clinton campaign’s chief strategist (in case you just returned from a year on the space station). This particular assignment reportedly has earned the firm (Penn Schoen Berlind or B-M?) some $10 million in fees thus far. OK No biggie. Times change.

Yet, who was it that recently emerged to officially defend Senator John McCain against allegations of infidelity (or at minimum, impropriety)? It was none other than Charlie Black, the “B” in BKSH, Burson-Marsteller’s public affairs subsidiary.

Huh? Could Burson-Marsteller be repping both Sens. Clinton and McCain? I wonder what the McCain campaign is paying the agency headed by the Clinton campaign’s chief strategist?