The final two perpetrators of the Fleishman-Hillard bogus billing case had a sentencing hearing in a Los Angeles court last week. Prosecutors recommended that Douglas Dowie and John Stodder Jr. receive five and three years respectively in federal prison. The other executive charged in the case, Steven Sugerman, earlier received a lenient sentence of probation and community service thanks to his cooperation with prosecutors.
The trio were convicted of billing non-existent hours for public relations work to the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, among other clients. The DWP overpaid by about $30,000 per month, with a total overage of $325,000. All together, Fleishman-Hillard has paid $5.7 million to settle the matter with DWP and other city offices.
While legal experts debate whether over-billing should qualify as a crime or a civil breach of contract, communications professionals can focus on a more pragmatic question: Has the scandal changed PR practices?
"Cases like this make sure agencies will review all levels of work to make sure the bills are proper," said Denis Wolcott, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District and president of the Public Relations Society of America's L.A. chapter. "I would call these isolated cases, not rampant, and not prevalent in the industry."
But Jack O'Dwyer, publisher of New York-based newsletter O'Dwyer PR Report, believes the structure of the PR business encourages billing distortions. "PR should not be sold by the hour any more than a book manuscript should be sold by the pound," he said.
O'Dwyer cites the hypothetical case of a PR firm with two clients one that wants to publicize its new president, the other that wants a big event. By sheer luck, Time magazine calls to interview the president and the PR shop handles it in less than an hour. On the other hand, the event involves long hours, but because of bad weather no one shows up.
The client in Time magazine feels it got a lot of value, while the event sponsor feels cheated. So some PR firms, according to O'Dwyer, will "trade off hours" by charging the pleased client more hours and the sour client less than their respective projects required.
Instead, O'Dwyer thinks PR firms should charge a flat fee. "You don't have to know how much time it takes them that's their problem. If you pay by the hour, then they'll take forever," he said.
According to Wolcott, PR firms can structure a client's bills on a retainer, flat fee or hourly basis. "If you're a company looking to use a PR firm, you have to have a clear upfront discussion about what you need. That way the right kind of billing can be set up from the beginning."
But Wolcutt agreed with O'Dwyer about the focus on tangible benefits, saying that "clients are demanding more accountability, not only for billing but for results."
In the case of DWP, an internal audit found questionable billings in 2002 but the contract was renewed. As for results, the investigation turned up evidence that the PR agency worked to improve then-Mayor James Hahn's image with constituents rather than the use of environmentally friendly electricity.
To communicate Monday Night Football's move from ABC to ESPN, the cable sports channel bought two of the highest profile outdoor spots in the country: Madison Square Garden in New York and the Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles.
The gigantic triptych in L.A. shows the San Diego Chargers playing the Oakland Raiders the two NFL teams geographically closest to L.A. Meanwhile, a massive print, poster, TV and radio campaign promotes a new weekly lifestyle centered on Monday nights. According to Aaron Taylor, vice-president of Sports Marketing at ESPN, the campaign by Wieden Kennedy New York features a different message each day of the week:
Wednesday: There's an existential void in the universe Thursday: First day you can smell football Friday: Casual day at work, so wear that NFL jersey
Saturday: College football can tide you over, but Sunday: Lots of pigskin and weekend chores Monday: Finally, the Big Event Tuesday: Water cooler talk looking back at last night's game.
The campaign has generated some impressive results for ESPN, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Co. in Burbank. The return of the New Orleans Saints to the Superdome on Sept. 25 marked "the first time ESPN has ever delivered an average of more than 10 million homes for a telecast," according to Taylor. After three weeks, the games rank as the second, third, and fourth most-watched programs in cable TV history.
With Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. taking ad dollars away from television, it may seem the West Coast center of advertising gravitas has shifted north to Silicon Valley. But in one new ad medium, Los Angeles still has the inside edge: Celebrity blogs.
Last month the L.A.-based online ad sales rep firm Gorilla Nation signed the celeb blog PinkIsTheNewBlog.com. Aggregating Pink's traffic to Gorilla Nation's other paparazzi sites Superfical, Jossip, Egotastic and Socialite's Life creates a market of 49.1 million page-views every month.
"People seem to have an insatiable appetite for Lindsay, Paris, Jessica and Nicole, and we're here to make it all more interesting," said Trent Vanegas, the former teacher from Detroit who founded Pink and now blogs in L.A. "We just revel in the ridiculousness of it all."
As an advertising venue, Pink trails far behind its Gorilla Nation teammates. Pink reports 1.9 million unique visitors and 4.8 million page views per month. By comparison, Egostatic has 5 million unique visitors and 13 million page-views, while Superficial delivers 9 million visitors and 12 million page-views.
Staff reporter Joel Russell can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 237, or at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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