We were disappointed yesterday when the cowardly Wall Street Journal failed to fire faux-trendspotting flack Mark Penn for using his newspaper column to troll for PR clients. But—hearteningly—both Penn and the paper appear increasingly pathetic!
We do feel for the beleaguered actual reporters in the WSJ newsroom, who have to see their own reputations suffer by association while their paper's leadership caves in to a celebrity pseudo-columnist's right to disregard basic conflict-of-interest rules. One Journal employee told us, "While the Mark Penn incident is as egregious as it is embarrassing, at this point, I think most of the newsroom is so emotionally numb that nothing surprises us anymore. Truly."
In a statement, Mr. Penn, who declined to be interviewed, said that he had not seen the message until after it was sent, and that "nothing was done nor likely to be done as a result of it." He said that none of the companies mentioned in his column were Burson-Marsteller clients.
"I had no business motive in writing it whatsoever," he said. But, he added, "We will continue to distribute the columns to friends and clients alike, and assured The Journal they will not be tied to any specific marketing efforts."
More pathetic: the fact that this—which is not only not contrite, but actually dares you to believe that Burson-Marsteller will "continue to distribute" the column to clients and potential clients, but that that will not constitute a "marketing effort"—was enough to convince the standards-setters at the nation's premier business paper to give this man a pass. Not only that, but the WSJ's spokesman still refuses to comment on whether the paper is "comfortable with" Burson's actions.
It's also worth noting that while Penn's main excuse to the paper was that he didn't know in advance about this effort to leverage the column into clients, it's ridiculous to spin this into some sort of rookie mistake or uncharacteristic action. The email in question came from Josh Gottheimer, one of Burson's top global executives and head of the firm's Public Affairs practice. That means he's the head political communications guy. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and for John Kerry and Wesley Clark's presidential campaigns. He was also the head PR guy for Ford. He knows what the fuck he's doing.
Finally, pathetic and amusing: The paper is keeping on Mark Penn, presumably, because they don't think they can afford to lose his unparalleled insight into the latest MICROTRENDS like—in this case—"glamping." Strange. An insider tells us that a WSJ travel reporter pitched a "glamping" story to the paper four years ago. The reporter was told that the story was too old.
[Pic: Larry Roibal]