White House ‘Pissed’ Over Advisor’s PR Work

A Daily Beast follow-up to a weekend article in The New York Times asserts that White House staffers got “pissed off” on learning that Anita Dunn, current Obama campaign insider and former White House communications director, also performs PR duties for some clients who have a certain…interest in influencing policy.

The Beast somehow recruited several anonymous stock characters to say very bad things about Mrs. Dunn. Some key quotes:

“It smells.”

“You don’t hear stories about [lobbyists] so obviously exploiting their access.”

“I think she is well over the line.”

Obama himself was “…not aware…of the extent of her firm’s work. I bet he won’t be happy.”

Despite these redundant quips, official White House spokesmen defend Dunn’s dual roles, stating that all involved parties followed—and continue to follow–relevant ethics rules. Dunn’s own nameless colleague at SKDKnickerbocker, which has doubled in size since she left her communications director position in 2009, told Beast reporters that the firm nurtures no conflicts of interest, saying “We’re a public relations not a lobbying firm”, though she did note that the firm gives suggested statements, or “talking points,” to lobbyists for use on behalf of their clients.

SKDKnickerbocker has a few big-name clients, including “food manufacturers, a military contractor, the New York Stock Exchange and the Canadian company developing the Keystone XL pipeline”, who would love nothing more than privileged access to White House insiders—and some of those companies have goals explicitly opposed to those of the Obama administration. For example, the tech company Oracle “hired Ms. Dunn’s firm to push for reduced tax rates on offshore profits”, claiming that any level of insight regarding the administration’s mindset on related issues would be worth the (surely considerable) fee. So is Dunn selling influence, or is she selling “the mere illusion of access?”

SKDKnickerbocker employee and longtime political consultant Hilary Rosen clarified, stating that the firm only offers clients “help in navigating the political landscape in Washington”—not direct access to White House officials or policymakers.

According to rules applying to all political appointees, Dunn could not communicate with administration officials on her clients’ behalf for two years after leaving her White House role. Sounds like all the required boxes have been checked, but is this truly the “middle ground” between Abramoff-level corruption and the dismissal of all lobbyists in Washington? (That is never, ever going to happen, btw.)

Could this revelation damage Dunn’s standing? Or is the administration just worried about defending its transparency claims?

Finally, the big question: Should PR reps follow the same strict rules applied to registered lobbyists?

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.