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Spin Doctor, Heal Thyself: PR Group Is the Other Worldcom

Names: The association faces the problem of being mistaken for the unrelated telecom company.


Worldcom Public Relations Group is in the middle of its own public relations nightmare.

The New York-based association of more than 100 spin agencies around the world wants everyone to know it is not now--and never has been--associated with WorldCom Inc., the telecommunications company that filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

"It just so happens our name is the same," said Hal Dash, a board member of the group founded in 1988. "We have absolutely no relationship with them. We had the name before they did."

The nation's No. 2 long-distance provider and parent company of MCI adopted the WorldCom name in 1995.

Still, a public relations expert might gently suggest this would be a good time for a name change. Dash said the board is having none of it.

"I think it's a ... catchy name," he said. "Of course, these days it's catching something else."

The group was not always so adamant. It was willing to change its name when the phone company came calling in 1996--for the right price.

"We were a nonprofit and they were a company that had zillions of dollars," Dash said. "We wanted to know if they wanted to pay us for the name. Basically, they blew us off. I guess they thought they could outlast us."

USC business professor William Crookston, who specializes in marketing and public relations, believes that it's in the group's best interests to hold on to the scandal-tinged Worldcom moniker.

"The main thing about a brand name," he said, "is that it should be on everyone's lips."

Even when those lips are scowling?

"Absolutely," Crookston said. "It gives them a chance to quickly explain they are not part of the WorldCom telecom. It turns a negative into a positive, and nobody forgets their name."

Besides, he said, "you know that old saying about publicity: 'It doesn't matter what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.' "

The origins of the Worldcom name for the PR organization are a mystery. "I think it just referred to the fact that we are a worldwide group that works in the communications field," Dash said. "It wasn't rocket science."

The small and mid-size agencies that make up the group often depend on one another to handle situations outside their areas of expertise.

Cathy Dunkin, president of Worldcom's Americas wing and managing principal with Standing Partnership in St. Louis, said that when one of her clients--a chain of movie theaters--filed for bankruptcy protection, her firm brought in an expert from a member agency in Cleveland who had a lot of experience with Chapter 11 companies.

"Maybe the telecommunications company would want to talk to him," she said.

Being the less well-known of the two Worldcoms, the public relations group has had to work at differentiating itself. Especially lately.

Dash said he has gotten a lot of ribbing from clients and friends.

"They call up and say, 'Are you still here?' " he said. "Or a vendor might say, 'Maybe I should get payment in advance.' It's all kidding around."

Being in the business, Dunkin has given some thought as to what she would tell executives at the other WorldCom if asked for PR advice.

"I would tell them they have to be honest, ethical and open in their communications," Dunkin said.

"Maybe they have had some lapses in that, but that's what I would be telling them to do from now on."

The most famous piece of advice in the PR industry is that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Perhaps having the same name as WorldCom is, for this group, a blessing in disguise.

"I guess you could say that," said Dash, suddenly demur. "Maybe there is a bit of a silver lining in all this for us."

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