PR People Behaving Badly

One of the responsibilities of a PR person is to mitigate the damage done to the reputation of employers and clients. Unfortunately, in recent weeks, it’s been PR people who are actually inflicting the damage.

Out in San Francisco, PR Director Kirk Reynolds has brought shame to the San Francisco 49ers organization. That’s saying a lot considering the team had the worst record in professional football last year (2-14), gave up the most points (28 per game) and scored the third fewest points (16 per game) in the league.

Reynolds put a punctuation mark on the disastrous 2004 season by filming a video that included nude women and off-color jokes about gays, Asians and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Reynolds even starred in the film, imitating Newsom and filming part of the video in the Mayor’s own office. Reynolds shot a similar video the previous year, which included a scene in which a stripper buries the PR man’s head in her bosom.

The irony of the Reynolds situation is that the videos were made to show 49ers players how to deal with the media. The purpose of the videos, according to Reynolds and the team, was to show players how their actions and words could impact the team’s image, especially in a city as diverse as San Francisco. The team was well-aware of the videos, which were shot during the off-season, as were players, who were shown the videos during training camps in 2003 and 2004. It wasn’t until the videos were leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle, however, that the team decided they were “offensive in every manner” and contained “inexcusable material.”

Reynolds, for his part, has apologized, though he believes former General Manager Terry Donahue was behind the video leak. Donahue was fired in January, and the next day, he informed owner John York about the videos’ existence. Reynolds said Donahue believes that he was partially responsible for the GM’s firing, something Donahue denies. Regardless, the 49ers have been left looking foolish, and the team doesn’t look like it’s improved much on the field either.

Moving down the coast to Los Angeles, a second former Fleishman-Hillard executive has been arrested and charged with wire fraud and conspiracy. The charges stem from an investigation into overbilling of the City of Los Angeles agencies by Fleishman-Hillard. Doug Dowie and John Stodder, the former Fleishman-Hillard execs, are accused of running the overbilling scam, which also included the overbilling of private clients. Dowie was arrested last week.

Fleishman-Hillard has done its best to distance itself from its two former employees, and the firm recently agreed to pay the City of Los Angeles $5.7 million as part of a civil settlement. Still, one wonders how one of the world’s highest-profile PR agencies let this type of alleged activity occur, and in one of its biggest offices, no less.

West Coast PR people haven’t cornered the market on bad behavior. In Virginia Beach, Virginia, James Hambright was recently ousted from the advertising and PR firm that he helped create.

Hambright, Calcagno & Downing Inc. fired Hambright and filed a lawsuit accusing Hambright of defrauding the company out of $128,000 by having it pay for unauthorized expenses. The firm says Hambright used the money to buy antiques and collectable coins, make repairs to his swimming pool, and for everyday purposes such as groceries, movie tickets and computer games. Hambright’s wife, Angela, was also fired and named in the suit. She was in charge of accounting and bookkeeping for the firm and is accused of helping her husband cover up the payments.

The Hambrights have denied wrongdoing, saying the firm has taken an “internal dispute” and turned it into litigation. The firm, which had $57 million in client billings last year, says it will change its name. With each of the principals owning a third of the company, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, in Delray Beach, Florida, local PR man Gary Schweikhart earned himself some bad press recently. Schweikhart, in his role as president of the Gold Coast PR Council, had a letter published in local newspapers criticizing the City of Delray Beach for using a New York-based PR firm for a recent crisis control contract.

“The next time that Delray Beach feels the need to hire a public relations representative – and history indicates that there will be a next time – I hope that members of the local PR community will be given serious consideration,” Schweikhart wrote.

Schweikhart’s message is reasonable, but the crisis in question was the shooting death of a teenager by a Delray Beach police officer.

“Put another way – if anyone’s going to profit off this senseless tragedy, it should be us!” Andrea Clough wrote in The Palm Beach Post.

Delray Beach Mayor Jeff Perlman said Schweikhart’s letter was “a huge disservice to his industry and a big disservice to his own business.”

Perlman is correct, and Schweikhart would have been better off working behind the scenes to address the issue. The public cares little about an issue such as this under normal circumstances, and when it involves the death of a young man, how can anyone be expected to care whom a $10,000 PR contract was given to?

While these four examples of PR people behaving badly are the exception and not the rule, it’s interesting to note the air of glee with which the media attacks stories involving PR people. (Remember the Lizzie Grubman affair?) Part of the reason is that journalists often know the PR people in question from working with them, and familiarity breeds contempt. Another reason, quite simply, is that when a PR person creates a PR disaster, it makes for great ink. (Who doesn’t love irony?)

These certainly won’t be the last PR people to land in trouble, but perhaps their actions will serve to remind us that PR people, due to our close relations with the media, can and will find themselves in the media’s bullseye.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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