Fleishman-Hillard hires ex-Sen. Talent, ex-Rep. Luther

Fleishman-Hillard is known primarily as a public affairs and communications company, but it is beefing up its government-relations business in Washington in hopes of becoming more of a one-stop shop for clients that also want help with lobbying.

During the last two weeks, the group has announced two high-profile hires at Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations (FHGR), a subsidiary of Fleishman-Hillard International Communications, one of the world’s largest public-relations firms. Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) joined the firm as a co-chairman last week, and former Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minn.) was hired as a senior vice president the previous week.

The two join former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas), who was hired as a co-chairman in November. Fleishman-Hillard now has more former members of Congress on staff than ever before. The changes come on the heels of a short period when the group did not have any former members in its organization.

It’s not the end of the group’s hiring, according to Paul Johnson, Fleishman-Hillard’s vice chairman of global growth and president of public affairs.  “In the next year, we plan on being very aggressive,” Johnson said. “We’ll look to get talent from our competitors in the marketplace.”

Sandlin came to FHGR to lead the government-relations team and recruit “the best of the best.” He worked to bring Talent and Luther on board, and said FHGR intends to grow “by adding the best talent, and some of that talent is in former members of the House and Senate.”

Also on FHGR’s staff are Senior Vice President Paul Sweet, a former chief of staff to Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) and a senior staffer on the Gore-Lieberman campaign, and Vice President Michael McSherry, a former deputy political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Johnson said client demand has driven Fleishman-Hillard’s new emphasis on the government-relations part of its business. Traditionally, companies and other organizations have hired public-affairs teams to handle that business while separate firms handle lobbying, Johnson said.

“If you were working for the PR arm, they didn’t want you to be the lobbying firm,” Johnson said of the traditional approach. “In the last five years, those walls have been broken down.”

Increasingly, Johnson said clients that hire Fleishman-Hillard for public-affairs work, whether it involves a new media campaign or grassroots organization, also are interested in hiring the firm to lobby for it in Washington.

For example, Fleishman-Hillard worked in 2005 and 2006 with the Coalition for Asbestos Reform to lobby against asbestos legislation that would have created a 30-year, $140 billion trust fund to resolve claims outside the tort system by mandating a new corporate tax. Small and medium-sized businesses formed the coalition and hired Fleishman-Hillard to create a focused advertising campaign, to promote the group’s message with the media and to lobby members of Congress directly.

Despite support from the White House and the National Association of Manufacturers, the bill died in the Senate after falling two votes short of breaking a filibuster.

The recent hires also fit into the group’s plans to integrate Washington work with business in its secondary markets. That includes St. Louis, the group’s corporate home, where Talent, a longtime Missouri politician who was elected to the state House at age 28, will spend much of his time.

Johnson said Luther, who served almost 20 years in the Minnesota state House and Senate before his election to Congress in 1994, will spend half of his time in Minneapolis. Johnson Fleishman-Hillard hopes to duplicate this approach in other states, including California, Texas and Florida.

The goal is to help clients that need lobbyists who can open doors and monitor issues in Washington, and have local connections with state government officials, Johnson said.

Talent, who was defeated for reelection in 2006, will have to wait for a one-year cooling-off period to end before lobbying. Luther was defeated in his reelection bid in 2002 after serving four terms in Congress.

Sandlin, who has been out of Congress since 2005, is registered to lobby for the National Association of Broadcasters, as well as Stonewater Controls and the Pellet Fuels Institute, according to Senate records.