Mark Penn

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Source: Burson-Marsteller

Mark J. Penn is worldwide CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller (B-M), a position he has held since December 2005. [1] He is also the president of the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates (PSB), which he co-founded in 1975. Since December 2008 he has been a columnist for the Media & Marketing section of the Wall Street Journal.[2]

Penn was U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton's top presidential campaign strategist until April 2008, when he left following a meeting with representative of the Colombian government to promote a free trade deal that Clinton said she opposed. A June 2007 biographical note stated that he "has worked with Mrs. Clinton for over six years, since he ran the polling and messaging for her successful election to the US Senate in 2000." [3]

However, Penn wasn't fired from the Clinton campaign. He and his polling firm "will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign," reported the Wall Street Journal. [4] On April 7, "Penn took part on the campaign's morning message call ... as usual," reported Marc Ambinder on The Atlantic website. "This afternoon, he is also scheduled to be on a call with Clinton and other aides to begin to prepare for Saturday's presidential debate in Philadelphia." [5]

Penn also served as NPI Fellow at the New Politics Institute. He advised United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair "for his successful run for a third term." Penn is "best known for serving as President Bill Clinton's pollster and political adviser for the 1996 re-election campaign and throughout the second term of the administration. He also ran the polling and messaging and was part of the media team for the successful Senate campaign of Hillary Clinton, serving as her chief campaign adviser. He advises organizations and companies on a wide range of image, branding and competitive marketing assignments. Mark has been a key adviser to Bill Gates and Microsoft for the last 6 years." [6] [7]

Penn is married to Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser who in addition to helping found Third Way serves as Senior Advisor to Senator Evan Bayh, National Finance Chair for the Democratic Leadership Council, and Founder and Executive Director of Next Generation, a political action committee devoted to supporting moderate, centrist Senate candidates.

Penn as "Chief Strategist" with Hillary Clinton's Presidential Bid

Early in Clinton's campaign, Penn drafted an outline of how he thought Clinton could win the support of a majority of Democratic delegates.

"As this race unfolds, the winning coalition for us is clearer and clearer. There are three demographic variables that explain almost all of the voters in the primary—gender, party, and income. Race is a factor as well, but we are fighting hard to neutralize it.
We are the candidate of people with needs.
We win women, lower classes, and Democrats (about 3 to 1 in our favor).
Obama wins men, upper class, and independents (about 2 to 1 in his favor).
Edwards draws from these groups as well.
Our winning strategy builds from a base of women, builds on top of that a lower and middle class constituency, and seeks to minimize his advantages with the high class democrats.
If we double perform with WOMEN, LOWER AND MIDDLE CLASS VOTERS, then we have about 55% of the voters.
The reason the Invisible Americans is so powerful is that it speaks to exactly how you can be a champion for those in needs [sic]. He may be the JFK in the race, but you are the Bobby."[8]

Penn also suggested that the Clinton campaign should seek to criticise Obama for his "lack of American roots". In his strategy document Penn wrote:

"All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
Save it for 2050.
It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values. He told the people of NH yesterday he has a Kansas accent because his mother was from there. His mother lived in many states as far as we can tell—but this is an example of the nonsense he uses to cover this up.
How we could give some life to this contrast without turning negative:
Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back.
Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds."[8]

In August 2008 after Clinton's presidential bid had collapsed, Penn wrote that he liked John McCain's TV ad likening Barack Obama to celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. "Hillary Clinton's former top strategist wrote the ad tries to 'portray Obama's leadership for change as something fluffy and useless.' It bears a Republican political trademark 'attacking a candidate's strengths rather than the candidate’s weaknesses.'"[9] In an essay posted on, Penn contended that "clever negative ad can be devastatingly effective." He says that like the McCain ad, "Some negative ads crystallize voters' opinions without presenting any new information." Penn isn't troubled by that. "This year, you can expect a tough political season and plenty of negative ads. Done fairly, they serve a legitimate role." [10]

Penn Documents for the Clinton Campaign

Penn, Hillary Clinton & Colombia

On April 4, 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported that Penn had "met with Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. on Monday to discuss a bilateral free-trade agreement, a pact the presidential candidate (Clinton) opposes." Burson-Marsteller "has a contract with the South American nation to promote congressional approval of the trade deal." A spokeswoman for the Colombian embassy in Washington, Sandra Ocampo Kohn, stated that Burson-Marsteller, along with the Glover Park Group and Johnson, Madigan Peck, Boland & Stewart, had been contracted in 2007 to lobby for Colombia on behalf of a bi-lateral trade deal.[11]

U.S. Department of Justice filings disclose that in March 2007 B-M signed a $300,000, one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy. In March 2007 the Managing Director of Burson-Marsteller's Washington Region Office and Chairman of its Issues & Advocacy Practice, Robert Tappan, signed an agreement with the government of Colombia. In mid-April 2007 the agreement was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and subsequently became a public document. In it B-M undertook to "Provide ongoing strategic communications counsel to the Ambassador and key Embassy officials regarding the Free Trade Agreement and Plan Colombia; develope [sic] key messages, talking points and briefing materials regrading strategic objectives; facilitate meetings in Washington D.C. for the Ambassador; and co-ordinate media interviews and public events with relevant news media in Washington D.C. on behalf of the Embassy." [12] It also stated that B-M would "provide advice and communications counsel to the Ambassador and Embassy staff. Drave [sic] and review materials related to issues of interest to the Embassy".[13]

In a statement, Penn later apologized: "The meeting was an error in judgment that will not be repeated, and I am sorry for it. The senator’s well-known opposition to this trade deal is clear and was not discussed.[14] Penn may have thought his statement would mollify the Clinton campaign, but ultimately it did neither.

Colombia took offence at Penn's statement that it "was an error in judgment" to meet with the Colombian ambassador in Washington D.C. "The Colombian government considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable," the embassy stated in a media[15]

The escalating controversy resulted in a Clinton campaign spokeswoman, Maggie Williams, announcing that Penn was no longer "chief strategist" but would still be retained for his polling advice. "After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign; Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign. Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign's strategic message team going forward," the statement said.[16]

For Mark Penn the campaign "has been about as effective an economic stimulus program for himself as anything his clients have ever proposed for the nation," reports Mike Madden in Salon. Penn's firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, has billed the campaign $14 million for polling, direct mail, and consulting services -- nearly 9 percent of her entire campaign expenditures. "Getting rich off free-spending campaigns is, of course, a time-honored tradition in politics, and it isn't just Mark Penn who does it," Madden adds, noting that campaign consultants to Barack Obama and John Kerry have also raked in millions of dollars. "Campaign finance experts say most people who give to candidates figure it's being spent on TV ads. What few of them know is how much of the 'TV ad' budget winds up paying for a consultant's beach house."[17]

Penn later told the Guardian that "with the benefit of hindsight" he "would have done some things differently" by considering taking a leave of absence from Burson-Marsteller before joining the Clinton campaign. [18]

B-M's damage control memo

Following the change to Penn's role with the Clinton campaign and the loss of the account with the Colombian government, B-M distributed a memo for use as talking points with "clients or staff".[19] The memo stated:

Dear Colleagues,
We’ve all received a good number of inquiries about the news reports related to Mark Penn’s work with the Clinton campaign and developments in our relationship with the Columbian [sic] Embassy in Washington, which was until Saturday our client. Below you will find a prepared statement, providing talking points for use with clients or staff.
Meanwhile, it is more important than ever for us as leaders of this firm to communicate that we are more focused than ever on achieving our clients’ goals. Despite this unfortunate series of events, our business in the U.S. has never been stronger and we have achieved remarkable results for clients across the system so far this year. This momentum will only improve with Mark’s return to our day-to-day business.
Here’s the statement:
As you have heard, Mark made the decision to step down yesterday as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign. He will continue to poll for the campaign and play an important role advising both Senator Clinton and former President Clinton, as well as the rest of the leadership of the campaign.
This announcement was a culmination of discussions following a meeting Mark attended last week with the Colombian Ambassador to the United States. Until Saturday, Burson had been helping the Colombian Embassy with its Washington communication around the proposed Fair Trade Agreement. The Embassy hired Burson more than a year ago; this was an account in which Mark had had no role.
Last week, as a regular client courtesy, Mark met with the Abmassador and her staff. Mark was there in his capacity as Global CEO of BM — not in his capacity as an aide to the Clinton campaign. Although Mark neither led nor worked on this account, he has known Ambassador Barco and her family for more than thirty years. The Embassy elected to end their relationship with Burson after our work for them was reported in the media.
The good news is that while Mark will continue to advise the Clintons and the campaign, this change will afford him more time to do what he does best — provide great advice and direction to some of our largest clients. Mark has already received a flood of good will emails this morning to that end.
If you have any questions or receive any press inquires, please email or call …
Thank you.

Onto the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown?

The week after being dumped by dumped by the Colombian government and no longer working as 'chief strategist' for Hillary Clinton's campaign, David Singleton reported in PR Week that Penn may be hired as a pollster by media staff working for British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Singleton reported that Brown's communications chief Stephen Carter and his director of political strategy David Muir "are understood to have held talks with Penn last week" about assisting identifying policy areas that could be potential vote-winners. "Muir is a strong admirer of Penn and became acquainted with him while working at WPP, which owns Burson-Marsteller," Singleton wrote.[20]

Two months later, Penn offered what the Guardian called a "surprisingly upbeat" assessment of Gordon Brown's political future. "Look, obviously, Labour and Gordon Brown are in a tough spot. But these are situations that he has time to work out before a scheduled election. ... People are not in a good mood about the economy ... so it's going to take time, definition, persistence to turn it around. But it can be done." [18]

Penn's other clients

While the Clinton campaign said in 2007 that Penn "is currently working only with Microsoft" for his day job, an internal Burson-Marsteller blog "suggests ... he has been working with multiple clients," reported Bloomberg News. Blog posts by Penn mention work for Shell Oil, the energy company TXU, and the U.S. Tuna Foundation. In one post, Penn says "the mixing of corporate and political work" is "helpful in cross-pollinating new ideas and skills."[21] Writing in The Nation, Ari Berman noted that Burson-Marsteller's astroturf "attacks against environmental and consumer groups," and its "confrontational relationship with organized labor," as well as Penn's polling firm's work for the nuclear power industry[22] (which the Center for Media and Democracy reported on).

"I also, personally, don't do any lobbying," Penn told the Washington Post. [23]

Penn and big tobacco

A little digging reveals that, for well over two decades, both Penn and his opinion polling company have advised the tobacco industry on how to counter the campaigns of the tobacco control movement. Based on internal tobacco industry documents, it is clear that Penn and his colleagues have little personal sympathy for those promoting policies that put public health ahead of the interests of the tobacco industry.

Penn's work as a strategist and pollster for the tobacco industry goes way back. In 1989 Gus Weill from Penn and Schoen Associates (PSA), as it was known at the time, dispatched a proposal to Elizabeth Veanus of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) outlining how PSA would go about researching the company's prospects of establishing a branch of a smoker's rights group in Harlem. Weill wrote that his colleagues were "extremely excited" about the project. The polling, he wrote, would be undertaken by Penn and his partner Douglas Schoen, who "have more than a decade of experience conducting groups around the country and performing research on smoking issues."

The goal of PSA's proposed research project, Weill emphasized, was "identical to your goal in entering Harlem: to get smokers' rights groups up and running with utmost speed and effectiveness." The proposal outlined some themes to explore as a way of identifying which Harlem residents could be receptive to a smokers' rights campaign. "Do they understand the ways in which smokers are penalized by society? Sure, they know about non-smoking areas but do they know that smoking is over-taxed and over-regulated?" he wrote.

To help sell the proposal, Weill included brief biographical sketches of himself, Penn and Schoen. Penn, the proposal stated, had "designed and managed all Latin American projects" for the firm, including political campaigns for Presidents Campin and Peres in Venezuela, President Barco in Colombia, President Blanco in the Dominican Republic, President Paz in Bolivia and Premier Swan in Bermuda. For additional information on RJR's Smokers Rights Group strategy and programs, see the article on RJR's Partisan Project.

Another longstanding client of PSB, as PSA became known after Michael Berland joined the firm, is the world's largest private tobacco company, Philip Morris (PM). Like RJR, PM had tried to mobilize "grassroots" opposition to tobacco control measures. It was a strategy that relied on using a front group — in PM's case the National Smokers Alliance — to shore up political opposition to reforms while it attempted to rebuild its political defenses via traditional lobbying and PR campaigns. But as the court findings against tobacco became more frequent and tobacco companies were exposed as organizers of smokers rights groups, PM and other tobacco companies' political standing evaporated. As the evidence of the dramatic health impacts of environmental tobacco smoke grew, support for bans on smoking in public spaces — such as bars and restaurants — grew. Once more, PSB volunteered to help defend the indefensible.

In 2001, PM hired Penn to help develop strategies to convince the Democrats in Congress "to support reasonable regulation" of the tobacco industry. PM's plan was to have surveys conducted by both Democratic and Republican pollsters; the results would support a "compromise" bipartisan position on tobacco regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For PM, the strategy was based on a shrewd assessment that short-term concessions would bolster its medium and longer term position in the market relative to its main competitors, such as British American Tobacco and Reynolds. It figured that PM-approved changes with bipartisan support would be more palatable than tougher standards that could emerge later.

In a summary memo of its 2001 poll, Penn and his colleague Josh King explained that they tested what they referred to as the two "extreme" positions: "do not regulate tobacco at all" and "regulate tobacco out of existence." The pollsters then presented PM's preferred elements of FDA regulation. This approach allowed them to conclude that "there are broadly appealing 'third way' approaches that voters can accept by a large majority."

"The poll shows people are looking for a constructive approach to tobacco, one that limited FDA regulation represents, and that they are more likely to support both companies and political figures that support the basic idea," they added. It was just the result PM was looking to use in its lobbying strategy, which continues today. Later that year, PM unveiled the results of polling by PSB and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. In the accompanying media release, Penn proclaimed that the results indicated that the public supported "tough meaningful FDA regulation of cigarettes that works towards goals like stopping kids from smoking and reducing the harm caused by tobacco." The research, he continued, "shows they [voters] want real action and an end to the bickering among alternatives."

As TobaccoWiki Editor Anne Landman observed in early 2007, if PM's preference for limited regulation is successful, it would:

generally preserve the status quo of "adult choice" about smoking; assure that cigarette manufacturers don't create any more risks than their products already pose; place FDA in charge of informing citizens about the risks of smoking; and prevent FDA from getting any authority to reduce or eliminate any naturally-occurring harmful constituents in cigarettes (by relegating this power only to Congress) ... If the currently-proposed bill to have FDA regulate tobacco preserves the status quo, then smoking rates will continue to fall at a painstakingly slow rate. That will be bad for public health, but great for Philip Morris.

Notably, Penn's official Burson-Marsteller biographical note avoids mentioning his work for the Tobacco Institute, R.J. Reynolds or Philip Morris.

Penn & B-M's anti-labor work

In mid-2007, the dual role of Mark Penn as the CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller and chief strategist for the Democratic Party's Presidential aspirant Hilliary Clinton, irked some labor leaders. The New York Times reported that labor leaders Bruce Raynor of UniteHere, and James Hoffa of the Teamsters union, wrote to Clinton expressing their concern about B-M's anti-labor work. "He cannot serve two masters, working for a pro-union candidate and working for anti-union companies," Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said. [24]

Penn, who commented for both himself and the Clinton campaign, stated that "Senator Clinton’s well-documented support for pro-union causes would not in any way be affected by some clients in a firm related to the corporate network of one of her advisers. There is no connection whatsoever with her pro-union record." He also said "I personally had zero involvement in any of the work related to Cintas." [25]

Subsequently, Penn told Atlantic Online "I have recused myself from working on any management-side labor relations work." [26]

Ari Berman, who has written on Penn's PR life in The Nation is unimpressed. Penn, he wrote, is "not distancing himself from the money the "labor relations" wing brings in and the other controversial clients B-M represents in the defense, pharmaceutical and energy industries and the Republican lobbyists he oversees." Berman views Penn's "recusal" pledge is "a phony gesture that fails to address the underlying problems or the reasons prominent labor leaders are upset with Clinton's campaign." [27]

Some of Burson-Marsteller's known clients

See the Burson-Marsteller page for a list of past and current B-M clients.


SourceWatch resources

External links


  1. Burson-Marsteller, "Burson-Marsteller Names Mark Penn Worldwide CEO; Founder of Leading Opinion Research Firm", Media Release, December 7, 2005.
  2. "Mark Penn to Author 'Microtrends' Column for", Media Release, December 11, 2008.
  3. Burson-Marsteller, "Mark J. Penn, Worldwide President & CEO", undated, accessed June 2007.
  4. Jackie Calmes, "Clinton Aide Sacked Over Controversy on Colombia," Wall Street Journal (sub req'd), April 7, 2008.
  5. Marc Ambinder, "Penn: Never Out, Still In," The Atlantic, April 7, 2008.
  6. Mark Penn", New Politics Institute, accessed June 2007.
  7. James Carville and Mark J. Penn, "The Power of Hillary," Washington Post, July 2, 2006.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Mark Penn, "Weekly Strategic Review On Hillary Clinton for President Campaign", March 19, 2007.
  9. Penn Praises McCain's Negative Ad", O'Dwyers PR Daily, August 12, 2008. (Sub req'd).
  10. Mark Penn, "Negative ads: They really do work",, August 11, 2008.
  11. Susan Davis, Clinton Aide Met on Trade Deal: Penn Held Talks On Colombia Pact Opposed by Senator", Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2008; Page A3.
  12. Burson-Marsteller, Exhibit A: Agreement with Embassy of Colombia, Washington, April 18, 2007, page 3.
  13. Burson-Marsteller, Exhibit A: Agreement with Embassy of Colombia, Washington, April 18, 2007, page 4.
  14. John M. Broder, "Clinton Strategist Lobbied for Trade Pact She Opposes", New York Times, April 5, 2008.
  15. "Release on Mark Penn’s Termination by Colombian Government", Time, April 5, 2008.
  16. "Statement from Maggie Williams", Hilliary Clinton for President, April 6, 2008.
  17. "Cashing in on the Clinton campaign: Where do all those little-guy donations go? Ask top strategist Mark Penn, as he exits with millions in consulting fees",, April 8, 2008.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Oliver Burkeman, "Hillary Clinton adviser: I would have done some things differently," The Guardian (UK), June 2, 2008.
  19. Susan Davis, "Burson-Marsteller on Penn Events", Washington Wire (Wall Street Journal Blog), April 7, 2008.
  20. David Singleton, "Number 10 in talks with Mark Penn", PR Week, April 10, 2008.
  21. Timothy J. Burger and Kristin Jensen, "Clinton Aide Penn Mixes Campaign Role, Advocacy for Companies," Bloomberg News, May 24, 2007.
  22. Ari Berman, " Hillary Inc.", The Nation, May 17, 2004.
  23. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "A Few Degrees of Separation From Hillary Clinton's Top Adviser", Washington Post, February 20, 2007; Page A11.
  24. Steven Greenhouse, "Top Clinton Aide Draws Criticism From Unions", New York Times, June 5, 2007.
  25. Steven Greenhouse, "Top Clinton Aide Draws Criticism From Unions", New York Times, June 5, 2007.
  26. Marc Ambinder, "Penn Recuses Himself From Firm's Anti-Labor Work", The Atlantic Online, June 7, 2007.
  27. Ari Berman, "Hillary vs. Labor, Round II", The Nation, June 7, 2007.

Articles by Penn

Interviews With Penn

General articles