PR firm for social causes tells its story with a book

When Gwen McKinney decided to give up journalism to start her own public relations firm in 1990, bringing awareness to the social issues she once reported on was paramount.

Public interest marketing was a common practice within many of the large communication firms in the District, but McKinney felt activists should have a company solely dedicated to their needs. McKinney & Associates has since become a go-to for clients committed to human rights and equality, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the AFL-CIO.

Creating media campaigns for such clients has given the firm more than two decades worth of stories that have now been turned into a book, “Voice Matters: An Anthology of Public Relations with a Conscience.” A collection of essays written by clients and associates, the book examines the firm’s efforts to bring awareness to such issues as health care disparity, racial discrimination and legal injustice.

One chapter, for instance, discusses how McKinney helped the Asian American Justice Center shed light on the intimidation of Vietnamese-American voters in Bayou La Batre, Ala., by teaming with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to conduct joint media briefings.

McKinney came up with the idea for the book two years ago, when the firm celebrated its 20th anniversary. The firm’s in-house design team to pulled together the layout. Copies of the book are available on the company’s Web site and Amazon.com for $10.

McKinney & Associates has a staff of nine, who handle work as varied as brand development and multimedia productions. The boutique operation has a growing roster of clients that include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. McKinney declined to discuss revenue, but she said business is good enough for the company to keep its office on K Street.

“It pays to have a singular focus that you can own, but it only works if you are of a certain size,” said Gerard Corbett, chair and chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, a trade group. Boutique firms “have an advantage” in this space.

Corbett pointed out that one of the most notable boutique firms in the public interest niche is District-based Fenton, though larger players Ogilvy Public Relations and Burson-Marsteller also have thriving practices.

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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