PR Firm's Work for Civil Rights Commission Draws Fire
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

PR Firm's Work for Civil Rights Commission Draws Fire

At the center of so much controversy, the commission has been working with Washington public relations firm McKinney & McDowell to make sure its reports were publicized and understood. Now its use of that firm has itself attracted criticism.

Paul Holmes

  WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s been a busy 12 months for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. First, the agency sparked an angry reaction when it reported that the New York City Police Department used improper racial profiling to stop and question black and Hispanic suspects. Then it provoked Republicans with a report that found serious flaws in the Florida voting process.
 
At the center of so much controversy, the commission has been working with Washington public relations firm McKinney & McDowell to make sure its reports were publicized and understood. Now its use of that firm has itself attracted criticism, with a Scripps Howard story claiming the Commission spent $135,000 on public relations.
 
According to the story, payments made during the current fiscal year are more than double the amount that the panel is allowed to pay to outside consultants, according to the requirements of its 2001 spending allocation from Congress. The story quoted Charles Atherton, secretary for the Commission on Fine Arts as questioning the civil rights group’s use of funds: “I don't see how a government agency can go out and hire a public relations firm. The federal government is not in the business of polishing its image. It’s in the business of providing information to the American people.”
 
Providing information to the American people is a pretty good description of what public relations is all about, and McKinney & McDowell president Gwen McKinney says that’s exactly what her firm was doing. “The commission is a public watchdog for civil rights, and that means it has an obligation to ensure that people know about its initiatives and its reports,” she says. “We work to help facilitate contact between the commission and the media.
 
“In this era of cut backs, public relations is the most cost-effective way to get bang for the buck in terms of the dispersal of information.”
 
McKinney & McDowell specializes in working with non-profit and government groups with a pro-civil rights or otherwise liberal agenda. Its clients include the American Cancer Society, the Legal Defense Fund, the Death Penalty Information Center, Amnesty International, and the NAACP. McKinney is a former Philadelphia Tribune report who directed information campaigns for the United Nations; her partner Leila McDowell worked in television for a local ABC affiliate and helped plan the campaign that returned president Jean Bertrand Aristede to power in Haiti.
 
McKinney concedes that some of the Civil Rights Commission’s recent work has been controversial. “People may not like the message, so they try to kill the messenger,” she says. “That’s not anything I can help.”
View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus