Mark Penn’s Real Mistake

April 7, 2008

What really got Mark Penn fired (sort of) this weekend wasn’t making nice to Columbian officials on behalf of his PR business – which is exactly what Burson-Marsteller pays him to do – it was stepping out of the shadows and making himself a celebrity. Rule #1 for people whose job it is to make other people look good: Don’t get too public.

Penn has been all over the news calling himself “chief strategist” and generally making a spectacle of himself. His line on his B-M work has been that he’s only working for Clinton and Microsoft, so there’s no conflict, but that strikes me as a load of spin.

Firms like B-M hire big names like Penn to pitch, not fulfill contracts. They’re buying the ability to bring him into occasional meeting with clients, usually for pitches and keeping especially large cash cows happy, and dazzle them with his White House cuff links and “My Old Buddy Bill” stories.

So he went in, did his job and did his shtick for a client who wants help getting the government to do something unpopular. Standard stuff… except instead of staying in the background, he made himself into a public figure and thereby fair game for Team Obama opposition researchers. Or maybe the leak came from jealous internal rivals. Either way, it’s his ego’s fault.

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