Mark Penn, the strategist who dashed Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes, is the Wall Street Journal's "Microtrend"-spotting columnist. He's also CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller. Only a scumbag would abuse the former to drum up business for the latter.
Mark Penn's latest (old, and none too insightful) 'Microtrend' column is about "glamping"—glamorous camping. It ran last weekend. By Monday, according to an internal email obtained by Gawker, Burson was already trying to recruit companies from the industry featured in the column as clients. Burson Executive Vice President (and former Bill Clinton speechwriter) Josh Gottheimer urged Burson's senior staff—including Founding Chairman Harold Burson, US President & CEO Patrick Ford, and others, to use Penn's column as a tool to approach clients in the camping industry about business. Not only that—he recommends that Mark Penn "send a note" to the CEO of these potential clients requesting a meeting.
You may recall that Mark Penn was canned as Hillary Clinton's campaign strategist after it emerged that his firm was trying to get a contract to do PR work for the nation of Colombia—work that went against Clinton's own political position (a story that the WSJ broke). We pointed out at the time that it was idiotic to expect a full-time PR exec to be anything but a PR exec—Penn's job is to bring in business to Burson (one of America's biggest, and shadiest PR firms), and anyone expecting Burson to pass up business opportunities because they somehow clash with Mark Penn's various other hobbies will be sorely disappointed.
Moonlighting from his PR career has already screwed a politician. Now he's screwing a newspaper the same way. Here we have a Wall Street Journal columnist whose firm is taking his newspaper columns fresh off the press and running to any company connected to the column's subject of the week, trying to get them to sign up with said firm—led by the columnist himself!—for PR work. At best, Penn has a conflict of interest here that can only be resolved by resigning one job or the other. The least generous interpretation would be that Burson-Marsteller is purposefully using the editorial space of the Wall Street Journal as a business recruitment tool—fooling one of the nation's most prestigious papers into giving it ad space it can use to promote its own clients, for free.
Either way, whatever sort of credibility Penn had as an expert who spots trends based on data rather than on his own firm's business considerations is clearly shot. WSJ parent company Dow Jones' own Code of Conduct states that "The Company will suffer, for example, if our customers cannot assume" these principles are followed:
• Our analyses represent our best independent judgments rather than our preferences, or those of our sources, advertisers or information providers;
• Our opinions represent only our own editorial philosophies; or
• There are no hidden agendas in any of our journalistic undertakings.
We're contacting the WSJ and Burson-Marsteller and we'll bring you their responses when we get them. In the meantime: Don't go trusting any Microtrends. Unless you're Mark Penn's client.
Update: The WSJ referred us to Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal and Executive Editor for the Journal Online. He tells us he is "Looking into it. We have a clear conflict of interest agreement with Mr. Penn and all our outside columnists."