Toxic PR Clients: Are They Worth The Risk?

In light of the news that the esteemed Sitrick and Company is now handling Harvey Weinstein’s seemingly insurmountable PR crisis, it got me thinking about the pros (if any) and cons of representing toxic PR clients.

While I handled product-related accidents during my tenure as spokesperson for Mattel Electronics and defended controversial TV programming as a PR executive at Turner Broadcasting, I have neither the chops nor the stomach for the kind of intense crisis communications actions involved in repping a man Time magazine dubbed a “pariah” and “predator” in its latest cover story.

That said, I admire the pros who do have the fortitude for it—but I wonder if they ever worry about crossing the line by taking on an individual or a company too morally corrupt to deserve their distinguished services. Aren’t they concerned about the potential backlash? Won’t it taint the agency’s own reputation in the long-term? And aren’t some cases so bad that they’re doomed from the start? Or is this all just the same as a top-notch defense attorney representing an unsavory defendant?



In Sitrick’s case, taking on toxic PR clients such as Chris Brown and Michael Vick did not seem to tarnish the company’s image much. Quite the contrary: Michael Vick, for example, received a $100 million NFL contract after Sitrick’s makeover, which by the way, cost Vick more than $100,000 in fees. Today, Sitrick’s list of clients on its website includes such major brands such as Activation and The Grammy Awards, and celebrities like Halle Berry and Kobe Bryant.

But perhaps Sitrick is some rare exception to the rule.

To find out, I reached out to a number of well-known crisis communications experts around the country to get their insights on the matter and to learn how they determine whether or not to represent toxic PR clients like Harvey Weinstein. (I did not attempt to contact Sallie Hofmeister, the venerable former L.A. Times reporter who is now the Sitrick executive serving as Weinstein’s spokesperson, and who is undoubtedly legally bound to keep her thoughts on this matter to herself for the time being. However, I will call her for a follow-up story as soon as appropriate.)

In summary, all the pros responding to my inquiry said they would not represent Harvey Weinstein, mainly due to ethical reasons but also because they felt he was a lost cause. In vetting potential new clients, many agencies conduct extensive research on the person and company to ensure that their values match. They also take into consideration the severity of the crisis (product recall vs. sexual harassment, for example) and whether they think the prospect would be able or willing to follow their advice—which starts with being completely honest and transparent.

Below are some of my favorite comments about toxic PR clients:

“When it comes to taking on a controversial client, you have to look into the actual controversy. Is the controversy hearsay? Is it legit? What is the severity of the situation? I have worked on many controversial issues, but only after conducting extensive research to determine that the client was indeed innocent. So I do believe that story deserves to be told. However, when there is ample amount of proof, such as we are seeing with the situation with Harvey Weinstein, I would never take on that client.” —Danny Deraney, CEO, Deraney PR

“I highly doubt and could bet on the fact that we wouldn’t represent [Weinstein], considering the fact that public perception has already been very loud on this issue. The horse has already left the barn and, frankly, time won’t be able to heal in this case. He’ll always have the label follow him around. Managing that crisis would be a nightmare and no fee is worth the headache or bad association we’d potentially suffer from it.” —Don Martelli, vice president, Schneider Associates. (Martelli is a former Boston Globe reporter who worked on the Archdiocese of Boston abuse crisis that was featured in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.)

"In a crisis situation, we always give preference to current clients, particularly because we already know the moral compass that guides them. It's pretty rare that we'd take on a controversial client in the middle of or post-controversy. It's pretty difficult to win in the court of public opinion after the indiscretion has occurred—think Tiger Woods, Paula Deen, Penn State, and now Harvey Weinstein. If someone comes to us in the middle of the crisis, we weigh what's already been said or done (or hasn't). In every case where we've helped the client, it's been because of something outside of their control—an executive's sudden death, an employee killed at work, a plant explosion, or a natural disaster. I cannot think of a single reason we'd take on someone like Harvey Weinstein for reputation management. The advantage to running your own business is you get to choose who you work with. If their moral compass does not aligns with yours, it's easy to say no." —Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich and author of Spin Sucks.

“I have always put my principles above profits. In light of the number of women who’ve come out with similar descriptions of their encounters with Harvey Weinstein and the nature of those descriptions, I would not likely agree to represent him. In his case, the options are extremely limited at this point (beyond serving as an intermediary to accept media calls and interview requests). It’s going to be next to impossible to contain or limit any follow-up to the story at this point—especially if any lawsuits against him or the Weinstein Co. are filed.  And his reputation is beyond repair…only with many years of work that serves as reparations for the harm he’s caused and personal apologies to the women involved will he ever be able to regain even a modicum of respect.” —Janey Bishoff, CEO, Bishoff Communications

As for me, I’m just grateful I don't represent any toxic PR clients. The only unrestrained behavior mine ever exude are demands for last-minute press release changes and the occasional need for excessive hand-holding—of the purely figurative kind.

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