2020 rocked the communications community as the COVID-19 crisis triggered cuts in client spending, restructuring of PR/ad firms, layoffs and the shift to working from home.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many firms enlisted in the battle against racial inequality by rolling out or strengthening their diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The hotly contested presidential election and the never-ending tweets and taunts of Donald Trump provided the soundtrack to the tumultuous year.

Here are some of the highlights and lowlights covered by O’Dwyer’s in 2020:

Niel Golightly, Global Communications Officer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, joins Boeing on Jan. 1 as senior VP-Communications. The former US Navy fighter pilot held top PR jobs at Royal Dutch Shell, Ford Motor. He resigned in July due to an employee complaint about an article that he wrote in 1987 as a Navy pilot questioning the ability of women to serve in combat.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles names Simon Sproule chief communications officer effective Feb. 3 to succeed Golightly. He was VP-marketing and communications at Tesla and corporate VP at Nissan and Microsoft.

Harold Burson
Harold Burson

Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller and one of the most influential figures in PR history, dies at 98. BCW CEO Donna Imperato said Burson lived a giant life as a master of influence and was a true pioneer of PR and strategic communications. “He was the wisest person I knew, with the highest level of integrity, humility and kindness,” she said.

W2O acquires 21GRAMS, New York-based healthcare advertising firm, to “accelerate its vision of becoming the premier analytics-driven, technology-enabled healthcare marketing and communications company of the future, according to CEO/founder Jim Weiss.

Carol Wilson joins BCW as Executive VP-Inclusion and Diversity for North American operations as it pushes for a more open and collaborative workplace. At the Diversity Best Practices advisory firm, Wilson counseled more than 200 member organizations on diversity and sustainable change programs.

Teneo lands an $840,000 six-month contract to manage the communications department of Neom, the $500 billion mega-city that is supposed to be the centerpiece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to diversify the economic base of Saudi Arabia.


Edelman’s 20th annual Trust Barometer shows growing inequality is killing the dreams of people throughout the world as they feel the economic system is rigged against them. More than half (56 percent) say capitalism is doing more harm than good.

Climate change is the greatest issue facing brands today, according to a “Brand Pressure Index” report by High Lantern Group that analyzed 300 social topics. Labor insecurity, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, data security, trade barriers, racial inequality and misinformation also scored high on the list.

Jennifer Cunningham, one of the most powerful women in New York politics, quits SKDKnickerbocker to travel and explore new opportunities. The SKDKnick partner is former political director of the powerful 1199 SEIU union and a long-time friend of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Hope Hicks
Hope Hicks

Hope Hicks returns to the White House as Counselor to the President, reporting to first son-in-law Jared Kushner. “There is no more move devoted to president Trump’s gendy than Hope Hicks,” said Kushner. She was chief communications officer at FOX Corp.

SKDKnickerbocker acquires Sloane & Co from MDC Partners to give the public affairs shop a robust financial PR capability. Both entities are affiliated by Mark Penn’s Stagwell Group.

Craig Bucholtz joins General Motors as Senior VP-global communications. The Procter & Gamble Chief Communications and VP-Communications, personal health and oral care, took over for Tony Cervone, who retired April 1.

UK-based Huntsworth goes private via a $520 million deal engineered by American private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice. The private equity firm said healthcare-oriented Huntworth is well-positioned to capitalize on “demographic/economic growth, an increase in product launches, development of more specialized drugs and the emergence of new marketing channels.”

Porter Novelli recruits McKinsey & Co.’s David Bentley in March for the CEO slot. Bentley, who was VP-digital at the management consultant, takes over for Brad MacAfee, who left the Omnicom unit in December.

Michael Roth
Michael Roth

COVID-19 takes toll on Interpublic’s financial targets as CEO Michael Roth yanked full-year financial projection of three percent organic growth for 2020. “In light of significant microeconomic uncertainty resulting from the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, and the unknown magnitude and duration of its impact, it is appropriate to withdraw the company’s previously issued financial performance targets for full-year 2020,” IPG said in a SEC filing.

Publicis Group rolls out a $550 million cost reduction program as CEO Arthur Sadoun predicts the COVID-19 crisis will trigger the “greatest recession in living memory.” The cuts are designed to help the ad/PR combine “to adapt to the new context and be recovery-ready.”

Chevron’s Dave Samson joined Edelman as global corporate affairs vice-chair on May 1. It’s a new position. Samson was GM-PA at the oil giant and an alum of Oracle, Ketchum, Levi Strauss and IBM.

Weber Shandwick cuts and furloughs staff due to across-the-board client spending cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cutbacks follow moves to slash expenses, freeze salaries and trim executive pay. CEO Gail Heimann said of the layoffs: “It is something I hoped I would not have to do; it is a wrenchingly hard decision to make. And I know it is indescribably hard for those to whom we are saying good-bye.”

Rubenstein readies for New York City’s reopening as it develops messaging for the Coalition for NYC Hospitality & Tourism Recovery as it launched in May to promote the Big Apple when it opens for business in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. The launch was a bit premature.


Environmentalists scored a major victory at Chevron’s May 27 annual meeting as 53 percent of shareholders voted in support of a resolution requiring the energy giant to issue a report on its climate change-related lobbying efforts. The board urged stockholders to reject the measure.

Edelman cuts 390 people, which represents seven percent of its global staff, and ordered pay cuts from five to 20 percent to deal with the impact of COVID-19. CEO Richard Edelman called the cuts “gut-wrenching,” especially in light of his March statement that there would be no job losses due to the virus. That pledge was based on Edelman’s willingness to take the firm down to zero profit, but the company in June was “beyond the threshold of loss-making.”

WPP launches $30 million three-year program to combat racism and invest in Black and ethnic talent. The money will flow to external organizations and internal inclusion efforts. WPP also pledged to only participate in industry events or panels where people of color are represented.

Ray Jordan, who held top PR jobs at Amgen, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, joins biotech firm Moderna in June as it develops the first COVID-19 vaccine to post positive post-trial results. He is Moderna’s chief corporate affairs officer.

Barri Rafferty
Barri Rafferty

Ketchum CEO Barri Rafferty leaves the Omnicom unit to head the corporate communications department of Wells Fargo & Co. The 25-year Ketchum veteran was the first woman to head a Top 5 PR firm.

Ruder Finn signs a $1.7 million one-year contract to develop a website and social media campaign for Saudi Arabia’s Neom mega-city. The contract has RF stationing staff in Saudia Arabia. It includes a COVID-19 provision calling for RF “to use all reasonable endeavors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among its personnel, the employer’s worksite and any person at the employer’s worksite.”

WPP revamps its PA offering and sells a 49.99 percent stake to management of Finsbury, Glover Park Group and Hering Schuppener. The new entity Finsbury Glover Hering debuts in 2021 with 700 staffers in 18 countries.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies works with the World Health Organization to make certain its science and public health messaging is credible to ensure there is trust in the Switzerland-based groups’ advice and that its guidance is followed. President Trump, a critic of the WHO, vowed to pull the US out of the group.

Edelman helps Kodak deal with its PR crisis triggered by its internal communications team sending out a media advisory without an embargo time about the following day announcement of a $765 million loan from the US to launch Kodak Pharmaceuticals, a COVID-19 initiative backed by president Trump.

Michael Caputo takes a leave of absence from his top spokesperson job at the Dept. of Health and Human Services following an unhinged rant on Facebook Live, in which he lambasted career government scientists for acting as a “resistance unit” to Trump.

Former New York Governor David Paterson joins Kivvit, the PA and strategic communications shop. Paterson said he worked with lots of PA firms during his time in government but none of them impressed him more than Kivvit.

PR pro Harris Diamond steps down as COO of Interpublic’s flagship McCann Worldgroup ad agency after an eight-year run. He helmed Weber Shandwick for nearly 17 years.

Interpublic rebrands the Constituency Management Group, a global group of 28 marketing services firms and brands anchored by Weber Shandwick, Golin, Octagon, Futurebrand and Jack Morton, as IPG DXTRA. CEO Andy Polansky called IPG DXTRA a symbol of how “we work across our best-in-class agency brands to intentionally bring forward highly relevant, specialized services to our clients.

Hong Kong

Finn Partners lands a $25,000 monthly retainer contract to supply PR and social media services to The Hong Kong Tourism Board as the city looks to rebuild its tourist trade after China tightened control over the former British colony in July.

Edelman joins Team Neom as the independent firm scoops up a $75,000 monthly pact to provide strategic counsel, media relations, stakeholder engagement and content development to the Saudi Arabia mega-city.

Current Global launches “Accessible by Design” initiative, ensuring that all content and campaign be crafted to be inclusive to people of all abilities, such as those with sight, hearing, speech and cognitive impairments.

Doug Band, President/co-Founder of Teneo and ex-confidante to President Clinton, steps down to spend more time with his family and pursue other interests including teaching and investing. The departure of the 48-year-old follows a devastating article in Vanity Fair called “Confessions of a Clintonworld Exile” that outlined his messy split with the former president and his family.

The California Dept of Public Health plans to award a $40 million contract for a COVID-19 vaccine media campaign. The campaign, slated for mid-January, is to provide Californians and key groups with timely, accurate and actionable information about the vaccination.

Finsbury hires Vickee Jordan Adams, Wells Fargo’s Senior VP, Consumer Banking, Stakeholder Relations. She joins the firm as a Partner and co-lead of the financial services sector in January when it becomes Finsbury Glover Hering.

Emily Graham
Emily Graham

Omnicom names Emily Graham, Chief Equity and Impact Officer and Senior VP, Diversity and Inclusion Communications to oversee its OPEN 2.0 plan to achieve systemic equity across its agencies. She was chief diversity officer at OMC’s FleishmanHillard and earlier held posts at MWWPR and Burson-Marsteller.

Stagwell Group and MDC Partners iron out a definitive merger agreement to form what CEO Mark Penn calls a $2 billion “transformative” marketing services company with 8,600 employees in 23 countries.

The merger, which will be completed during the first-half of 2021, will create a roster of PR/PA firms that includes Finn Partners, KWT Global, Hunter, Allison + Partners, Sloane & Co and SKDKnickerbocker.

Howard Rubenstein
Howard Rubenstein

Howard Rubenstein, founding Chairman and President of PR powerhouse Rubenstein Associates and a crisis strategist who managed the reputations of everyone from Abe Beame to George Steinbrenner to Donald Trump, died on Dec. 29 at the age of 88.