It was reported late last week that Mr. Penn, who has rubbed many Clinton loyalists the wrong way from the start of the campaign, recently had met with Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. to discuss an effort to get congressional approval of a bilateral free-trade agreement, a major hot-button issue in this campaign. Hillary Clinton opposes the agreement. Mr. Penn conducted the meeting in his capacity as CEO of WPP Group's Burson-Marsteller, which lobbies on the matter on behalf of the country here in the U.S.
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After initially offering no comment on the meeting, Mr. Penn eventually called it an error, which sparked a swift reaction from Burson's client. The Colombian government issued a statement saying it was terminating its contract and that Mr. Penn's characterization of the meeting was "unacceptable."
The airing of this conflict of interest is the latest in a series of missteps for the campaign that have helped squander Ms. Clinton's status as the presumptive winner of the nomination. The campaign has struggled to nail the right message to woo voters and maintain a consistent brand.
'This is unprecedented'
Mr. Penn's decision to sacrifice one client relationship to save face in another has left some in the PR industry baffled. Speaking on background, one executive from a top-10 agency told Ad Age this morning that Mr. Penn's actions might cause concern from other clients.
"It's going to enrage some clients and certainly baffle the rest," the executive said. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a CEO throw a client so publicly under the bus for no other reason than that it conflicts with his other job. This is unprecedented."
A spokesman for the agency declined to comment.
The conflicts between Burson's client list and Ms. Clinton's stance on a number of issues have been well-documented since the campaign began. In Ad Age interviews with a number of high-ranking executives in the PR industry who did not want to be named, weeks before the news broke of Mr. Penn's meeting with the Colombian ambassador, the sentiment was strong that something like this eventually would happen.
Why not take leave?
One executive from a Washington-based agency wondered why Mr. Penn hadn't simply stepped down from his position at Burson while running the campaign to avoid these types of conflicts.
"Hillary's positions on so many things are going to run contrary to Burson's clients' interest," the executive said. "The fact is, on pharma, nuclear energy, labor issues and a whole list of shit, Mark, who is the Burson representation, has been at odds with Hillary's positions. And I just never understood -- and still can't to this day understand: Why create a controversy for your client?"
In an interview before the Colombia issue blew up, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum rather prophetically said Mr. Penn's and Ms. Clinton's interests would have been best served if he had devoted his time solely to the campaign.
"You just create a lot of static and problems," he said. "In 2000 and 2004, Mike Donlon, Tad Devine and I gave up all of our stock and left Glover Park while doing the presidential races. I'm not saying we are holier than thou, but people can make their own decisions, like Mr. Penn. I'm not going to criticize his choice, [but] at times [Ms. Clinton] has paid a price for it."