This is my goodbye to Mark Penn and his firm, Burson-Marsteller. I hope it’s yours too unless Penn resigns as CEO of the PR giant. Many believed he should have resigned upon joining the Clinton campaign. But I believe he should resign now, in light of his March 19th memo suggesting the campaign should portray Obama as un-American based on his multicultural roots. His resignation is imperative because his approach reflects an attitude that should be offensive to all Americans. Secondly, he should retire because as head of a publicly traded corporation he breached his responsibility by recommending racist strategies to clients. Thirdly, a company wielding global influence on policy and perception should not tolerate his insidious intellect. Finally, the communications industry cannot afford a poster child like Penn.
His memo proclaims: “Lack of American Roots:
All of these articles about his [Obama’s] boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
Save it for 2050.
It also exposes a very strong weakness for him – his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited.”
My gut reaction as an American is that Penn’s thinking is what is un-American at its core. As a minority, I am repulsed and incensed. Minorities have an uphill climb from the start. Even in the absence of blatant discrimination, we typically lack the multigenerational connections and access to opportunity that the nation’s powerbrokers enjoy. If we must also contend with our American values and roots being questioned, what chance do we have? I didn’t know there were different levels of “American-ness,” depending on what part of the nation we’re born in or how many generations our family has been here. That’s a big can of worms, Mr. Penn. I thought we were all created equal. “Save it for 2050,” Penn quips dismissively, belittling the role and voice that minorities play in our country today, not to mention over the past 200+ years. A man of statistics, Penn wants America to wait for minorities to play a leadership role until we officially become a majority in 2050, as projected by the Census Bureau. Are we a nation bound by shared ideals or undone by shades in the color of our skin? Should we save the suffering of slaves for 2050, Mr. Penn? Should we save the hardships of the Japanese Americans incarcerated out of racist fears during WWII as well? Should we ignore the contributions of all the Jewish, Irish, Chinese, Polish, and Latino immigrants until 2050? How about the Native Americans, Mr. Penn? Should we go ahead and wait until 2050 for them too? That way you’ll be long gone and won’t have to stomach a nation turned diverse? I don’t think words can express the outrage of millions of Americans, minority and not, at the flippant dismissal of our hopes and dreams by this affluent, powerful, Ivy League, lobbyist extraordinaire. Many pundits credit Hillary for not following his advice. That is to her credit. But firing him on the spot would have been better. I can guarantee you he wouldn’t have dared to make the suggestion had I been his employer.
It’s definitely cause for his dismissal from Burson-Marsteller. The company is owned by publicly traded behemoth WPP. WPP bears a corporate responsibility to avert discrimination. BM and WPP employ thousands across the globe. I wonder how those multicultural employees feel about Penn’s affront? How do his recommendations mesh with the company’s diversity policies? How do his actions increase the value of the company for its shareholders? His professional counsel to Clinton is at odds with these considerations. It was bad counsel, and he should be fired or resign.
Furthermore, Burson-Marsteller wields influence as PR agency to corporations and government agencies at every level: global, national, state, and municipal. Is this who we want managing public funds? A guy who thinks minorities can be portrayed as un-American just because our ancestors weren’t on the Mayflower? He says he manages over $500 million. If I was Governor of Texas, a majority-minority state for whom B-M does work, that wouldn’t sit well. If I was Mayor of Dallas, for whom B-M does work, that wouldn’t bode well. If I was President, for whom B-M does work at the Treasury Department, I wouldn’t wait until 2050 to make a change. PR agencies have a symbiotic opportunity and responsibility in shaping public opinion. We should do so in ways that don’t set the nation backwards but rather move it forward. Racism, however subtle, has no place in our work. And neither do Penn’s nefarious strategies.
Our industry struggles to recruit minorities. In New York, where B-M is headquartered, this issue has been attacked by the City and trade publications. Counterproductively, Penn’s approach is like putting up a poster on Madison Avenue telling minorities to turn back and stay away until 2050. Is that what we want? I don’t think so.
On the contrary, Penn should return to wherever it is he came from. Once there, he can conduct polls on the positive effect of his departure. In the meantime, I’ll forego future business with B-M, as my company has been a sub-contractor to them in the past. Likewise, I urge others to express their opinions and exert pressure for a change. We can’t wait for 2050, Mr. Penn. We must have a change we can believe in: Today!