Scores of executives in the nation's largest public relations firm have rebelled over its decision to direct an anti-abortion campaign, leaving the company with a public relations crisis of its own.
About a third of Hill & Knowlton's headquarters staff signed a letter protesting its decision to promote an anti-abortion message for the nation's Roman Catholic bishops. Others have complained individually, and one quit.
The irony, dissident employees said in interviews this week, is that one of Hill & Knowlton's specialties is advising companies how to avoid such turmoil. Its own failure could reflect poorly on the firm, they said.
"We have used extraordinarily poor judgment in our very own area of expertise," said one executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his career. "The firm violated everything we would advise a client to do about consulting employees. Every basic rule was violated."
There could be other fallout: Two minor clients have withdrawn their accounts and others have expressed disappointment, dissidents said.
Playboy Enterprises Inc., which has hired Hill & Knowlton for projects in the past, is undecided about hiring it again. "Our decision will be impacted by our principles. We've been longstanding supporters of reproductive rights," spokeswoman Robyn Radomski said Thursday.
Whatever Playboy's decision, she said, "We feel it's regrettable that such a big powerhouse PR firm has put itself in such a bad PR situation."
For their part, Hill & Knowlton and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirmed their intention to proceed with the account, said to be worth $3 million to $5 million over three to five years.
"I don't think we've made a mistake as a firm in taking on this account," said John Berard, a spokesman in Hill & Knowlton's Washington office, which will handle the work. "We knew it was going to be controversial."
The reaction of the company's staff was "reflective of society," Berard said, and the company was discussing the issue with its employees. They are not compelled to work on projects to which they object, he noted.
The case was just one recent example of abortion fomenting controversy in the business world. American Telephone & Telegraph, for example, drew sharp attacks from abortion rights advocates this week when it withdrew its annual $50,000 funding for Planned Parenthood.
Given the intensity of feelings, "the country is going to live with this not only at Hill & Knowlton but at all other organizations for the next 50 years," said William Ehling, chairman of the public relations department at Syracuse University. "It's just so divisive."
Indeed, while some Hill & Knowlton employees objected to the company's lack of consultation with its staff, the protest letter to Chief Executive Robert Dilenschneider focused on the abortion issue itself.
"For management to seek out as well as accept an assignment whose ultimate goal is to limit our fundamental rights leaves us with a stinging sense of betrayal," it said.