2016 Public Affairs Agencies of the Year, North America 2015 | Holmes Report

2016 North America Public Affairs Agencies of the Year

Our 2016 North America PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 150 submissions and 50 face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across the US and Canada.

Analysis of each of the Agencies of the Year for every category can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or here.

Winners will be unveiled at the 2016 North American SABRE Awards, taking place at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 3.

Public Affairs Agency of the Year

SKDKnickerbocker (Stagwell Group)
The big news at progressive public affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker last year was the acquisition in October by Mark Penn’s investment group Stagwell Group. So far, the impact has been minimal—principals Bill Knapp, Anita Dunn and Hilary Rosen remain in place and the firm continues to work on a wide range of corporate, advocacy and political campaign clients. SKDK’s digital capabilities have continued to expand (and it now has access to the resources of sister firm Code & Theory) and it has continued to strengthen its work in three key areas.

The first is in the M&A arena, where SKDK has built on its impressive work on the US Airways-American Airlines merger of a couple of years ago to become the go-to firm for M&A activity in Washington, DC, working with clients such as Anthem, GE Captial, and Pfizer (often in partnership with New York financial communications specialist Joele Frank). The second is providing support for some of the big progressive causes before the Supreme Court, typically working for broad-based coalitions on issues such as abortion, immigration reform, Obamacare and union voting rights. And the third is the opening up of Cuba, an issue in which the firm was involved from the outset (it won a SABRE for its work helping to free imprisoned government contractor Alan Gross and change US policy) and is now helping clients with market entry.

The firm also opened a west coast office last year, hiring former Obama administration official Bill Burton as managing director and working with west coast clients such as Disney and the University of California; continuing to work in the aviation sector with a coalition of US carriers and their unions concerned about the growth of Gulf airlines; and managing three Senate, 10 Congressional and a Governor’s race. — PH


APCO (Independent)

The only truly global firm specializing in the public affairs sector, APCO gets plenty of credit for its policy expertise, but not enough recognition for its role as an innovator. The firm has been producing groundbreaking research in the corporate reputation space (its Return on Reputation methodology does a s much to quantify the impact of enhanced reputation as any industry instrument we have seen) and has also been pioneering the use of digital in public affairs—community management and content creation, of course, but also a data-driven social listening approach that has helped clients such as a major car company and the Better Medicare Alliance target specific messages at specific influences to engage them more efficiently.

In many respects, 2015 was a year of transition—growth was modest, in the low single digits—as Brad Staples took over the global leadership role and Clinton administration veteran Lisa Osborne-Ross took the reins of the flagship DC operation, but the firm brought in new business from Bechtel, Kellogg, Diageo, Nespresso and more (joining the likes of Microsoft, Mars, Lenovo, IKEA and the Clinton Global Initiative) and new talent including John Stauffer from Social@Ogilvy and Gadi Dechter from the Obama White House (as well as a host of millennials with solid digital and social chops), while also strengthening its international advisory council. — PH

FleishmanHillard (Omnicom Group)
With close to 500 people in Washington, DC, working across five brands—including GMMB, VOX Global, Togo Run and DDC Advocacy— FleishmanHillard has probably the most comprehensive public affairs capability of any of the full-service agencies, and despite some. Its expertise in the market includes a host of government work, for agencies ranging from the FSA and FEMA to USDA and Homeland Security; the ability to handle global, federal and state legislative and regulatory issues, in areas that include food policy, healthcare, cybersecurity, homeland security, aviation, federal appropriations, energy and natural resources, the environment and technology; a CSR practice focused on social purpose and shared value.

The Vox brand, meanwhile, has a team of 60 offering digital advocacy, social media, grassroots and stakeholder outreach, event support and more; DDC, acquired two years ago, is a leader in data-driven advocacy campaigns; Togo Run focuses on the healthcare sector; and GMMB is an advertising and political consulting firm currently at the center of the Clinton campaign, among other critical efforts.

High-profile work in 2015 ranged from helping the US Department of Defense reduce the rate of binge drinking among junior service members to communicating Samsung Electronics’ corporate social responsibility efforts on veteran and military family outreach initiatives to working with the Electronic Payments Coalition to overturn price caps contained in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation.—PH

Global Strategy Group

Because of the amount of political campaign work it undertakes, Global Strategy Group tends to grow in even-numbered years and retrench in the odd—a pattern it broke for the first time in 2013—and while revenues were flat in 2015, it was the firm’s best non-campaign year. GSG is now generating about $30 million a year (split evenly between research revenues and public affairs and communications) and now has about 100 people, about 75 of them in its New York headquarters.

The firm does most of its work in highly-regulated industries—energy and financial services and healthcare are all areas of strength—and is working on more and more high-profile issues. Among the corporate highlights in 2015, GSG worked with Comcast on its oft-criticized corporate reputation, controversial pharmaceutical company Valeant on its regulatory issues, Con Edison on digital and social media and energy conservation initiatives, and “gig economy” companies such as Uber and Airbnb as they begin to encounter regulatory resistance to their rapid growth.

But the firm also does some interesting work outside of the corporate realm, supporting the ACLU on issues related to the Patriot Act, regional soccer governing body CONCACAF on the fallout from corruption investigations, and the FealGood Foundation on the renewal of the 9/11 health bill. Head of research Nick Gourevitch was promoted to partner last year, and the firm added senior vice presidents Matt Canter (in DC from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) and in New York Glen Caplin (former communications director to US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) and Dana Yeganian (from Capstrat). — PH

Singer Associates (Independent)
When it comes to high-stakes public battles in Northern California, Sam Singer’s firm is very likely to be involved on one side of the aisle. The firm has racked up numerous victories for clients across real estate, environmental issues, litigation, labor disputes, transportation, among many other critical issues. The San Francisco Chronicle has called Singer “San Francisco’s master of crisis communications.”

Singer’s built a strong business on that reputation over 15 years. Revenues are $4.7m, up 7% with 18 people working on clients that include Chevron, Stanford University, Hong Kong Economic Trade Office, Charles Schwab, AirBnb, City of San Bruno, Mission Bay Alliance and the Napa Valley Wine Train, among many others. Among its notable work, Singer was hired by a group of concerned Catholic parents, teachers, students and donors to battle the Archbishop on a “loyalty oath” that played out on a national stage. — AaS