A company without a moral rudder’
Hill and Knowlton
As the first multinational PR company and for a long time the largest in the world, Hill and Knowlton has created and refined many of the key techniques and strategies of public relations. H&K has over the years developed extremely close relations with many branches of government in the USA and around the world.
H&K fell from the world number one spot in the early nineties when it became embroiled in a series of scandals and internal conflicts. In recent years, under the leadership of CEO, Howard Paster, it has shown strong growth and has re-emerged as one of the industry leaders.
H&K’s 2000 revenues
Whilst it maintains long-term relationships with many major corporate clients, H&K is also one of the first choices for companies in need of crisis management.
After an 18-year career as a reporter, editor, and financial columnist, John W. Hill founded his public relations company in 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio. His early clients were banks, steel manufacturers, and other industrial companies in the Midwest. Hill, managed the firm until 1962, and remained active in it until shortly before his death in New York City in 1977.
During the Depression, Hill entered into a partnership with Donald Knowlton, previously the PR director of a client’s bank. The firm’s headquarters moved to New York in 1934, to be closer to its client the American Iron and Steel Institute, while Knowlton stayed in Ohio and operated Hill and Knowlton of Cleveland.
Despite the Depression, Hill and Knowlton grew rapidly and the firm’s business continued to expand through the 1940s attracting major corporate clients including leaders in the steel, aircraft manufacturing, petroleum and shipbuilding industries.
Hill and Knowlton was the first American public relations consultancy to establish itself in the newly formed European Economic Community. In 1952 Hill and Knowlton began to assemble a network of affiliates across Europe and by the middle of the decade had become the first American public relations firm to have wholly-owned offices in Europe. John Hill had realised that the growing multinationalism in many business sectors opened up a market for a multinational company.
H&K was the original multinational PR company, an audacious business move closely followed by Burson-Marsteller, and it brought huge new revenues. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s the two companies played leapfrog for the world number one spot.
The second major innovation in PR practice pioneered by H&K was to offer both PR and lobbying services. By the early 1960s lobbying had developed a very seedy reputation and John Hill had a very low opinion of the practice. This was to change
This was the first ever fusion of lobbying and PR services, a move that other major PR companies have since followed, and one that has arguably changed the nature of politics in the USA and the rest of the world. Joseph Goulden commented in The Washingtonian in 1974, “Nothing quite like Hill and Knowlton exists anywhere else in the city’s lawyer-government-lobbyist establishments. What H&K sells… is manipulation of the governmental process – in Congress, the regulatory agencies, the executive departments”
In July 1980, J Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, bought H&K. In 1987, the communications conglomerate WPP Group in turn, acquired JWT.
H&K’s acquisition by the WPP Group brought many changes to its existing culture. John Hill had a reputation for sticking to his (highly conservative and
As a member of the WPP group [www.wpp.com], Hill and Knowlton now
Up in Smoke
The tobacco industry has waged a fifty year campaign to hide the health effects of smoking. In 2005, the US Department of Justice’s legal case, asking for a staggering $280 billion in damages, finally reached court. They argued that the tobacco industry carried out a fifty year campaign of deception. At its heart was Hill and
One of the tactics was to create a controversy over health where there was not one. For
The PR industry and Hill and Knowlton have tried to keep the controversy open ever since.
Working for Oil Giants, the Nuclear Industry and Torturers
The firm helped in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
It has worked for Governments with appalling human rights records, including Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey – and China after the Tiananmen
The UK office has worked with the Government of Maldives on promoting the country as a tourist destination, whilst Amnesty International has issued a string of warnings and reports about this and the government’s repression of the political opposition.
Paving the Way to War
Hill and Knowlton played a leading role in the run-up to the first Gulf War. In August 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Fourteen years ago the American public were reluctant to send troops. Selling the war was not going to be easy.
As many as 20 PR firms were used to mobilize US opinion in favour of the war. Hill & Knowlton, then the world’s largest PR firm, served as the mastermind for the Kuwaiti campaign. The Kuwaiti government agreed a $12 million contract under which Hill & Knowlton would represent “Citizens for a Free Kuwait,” a classic PR front group which hid the role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration.
One PR commentator noted about Hill & Knowlton’s unprecedented campaign that: “H&K has employed a stunning variety of opinion-forming devices and techniques to help keep US opinion on the side of the Kuwaitis The techniques range from full-scale press conferences showing torture and other abuses by the Iraqis to the distribution of tens of thousands of ‘Free Kuwait’ T-shirts and bumper stickers at college campuses across the US.”
Hill and Knowlton also devised the defining moment that swung American public opinion in favour of war. It arranged for the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US to appear as an ordinary Kuwaiti girl in front of Congress. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”
It was a testimony that drove the US to war. It was totally false.