It seems a month can’t go by without Bell Pottinger, the UK’s self-styled ‘leading’ lobbying company, embroiling itself in a scandal. Today’s Independent article has certainly sparked off a plethora of criticism and commentary, much of it ill-informed and ill-conceived. It’s important to try and separate fact from fiction and cut through the spin on all sides of the debate.
Is it right for a public affairs or public relations company to represent a state like Uzbekistan?
Absolutely not, it’s a disgrace to even talk to a country that is run by such a despicable regime appears to be the thrust of the Independent’s article. But if you actually stop and look at what Bell Pottinger said then you’ll see that the first few slides of its presentation (embedded at the end of the post) are all about how a communications and influence campaign won’t work to improve Uzbekistan’s reputation unless the government makes real steps to improve its behaviour.
‘If, however, the government is committed to real and lasting reform then there are many things that Bell Pottinger could do’
‘â€¦ change is essential in order to change international attitudes.’
‘But we must be able to show our target audiences that change has begun, that long term goals have been definedâ€¦’
‘Once we have the assurance that genuine, verifiable reform is being introduced, we can put in place a communication and media strategy that tells the story of how Uzbekistan is changing for the better.’
That’s pretty unequivocal about saying that Bell Pottinger will only work for the Azimov Group if the government of the Republic of Uzbekistan cleans up its act. Surely that’s what we want it to do, therefore this is a good thing, isn’t it? The fact that Bell Pottinger’s strategy is to ‘tell the story of how Uzbekistan is changing for the better’ recognises that the communications must acknowledge previous bad behaviour, otherwise logically it will be impossible to show improvement.
If the UK government under John Major and Tony Blair had taken the attitude of you don’t talk to or help bad people because they are beyond redemption, then we’d never have had peace in Northern Ireland. This is practical, real world politics. If you want to make the world a better place then you have to engage with people.
It appears in this case that Bell Pottinger was acting correctly. What isn’t so clear is how well it has behaved in the past with some of the clients it has represented. Looking at its track record it could be surmised that this is Bell Pottinger turning over a new leaf. If so, then surely a company improving its behaviour is something we should welcome.
Is it wrong to claim that you as a public affairs company can influence government?
One of the roles of politicians is to listen to what people want, weigh up the arguments and make decisions based upon the evidence available. A good public affairs consultancy simply helps to make the case on behalf of companies, trade organisations, charities, pressure groups and trade unions. It is an entirely legitimate process and helps to ensure that legislation and policy is effectively scrutinised and that the end result is better than if a decision had been made without the full facts available. It is a similar process to going to your local MP’s advice surgery to ask them to do something to support your favourite charity or special interest group. Frankly, I’d be alarmed if a politician said they weren’t influenced by the people they are meant to represent.
What Bell Pottinger does appear to be guilty of is making exaggerated claims about and over-inflating the importance of contacts. Any really good professional public affairs professional will tell you that contacts aren’t as important as the uninformed like to think. But, let’s be honest what company, organisation or even individual hasn’t been guilty of that to some extent at sometime or other?
What is quite surprising is that Bell Pottinger’s major claim appears to be that it ‘got’ the UK prime minister to raise the issue of intellectual property theft with the Chinese prime minister. My main thought on this is that it isn’t a very big achievement, as surely it’s David Cameron’s job to stand up for British manufacturing.
Now that my quick defence of Bell Pottinger is done, let’s move on to what I think it got wrong.
How could self-proclaimed digital experts miss the lack of a digital footprint?
It is standard business practice to do some basic due diligence on potential new clients. It’s inconceivable that a ‘magical’ team of digital reputation experts would miss the fact that the Azimov Group, and the people meant to be involved in it, wouldn’t have a bigger digital footprint than its own website which is just a holding page on Google Sites. Ironically the proposal even highlights that ‘Google searches for ‘The Azimov Group; brings back only one relevant website.’
Given the history of journalist stings that should have set alarm bells ringing â€“ especially if you claim to be media relations and reputation management experts. It’s kindergarten stuff.
Did Bell Pottinger offer the right counsel?
It is on the digital public affairs counsel provided that Bell Pottinger really comes unstuck. The first mistake is that it doesn’t appear to have done even the most basic digital due diligence. But its presentation includes even worse as it appears to advocate ethical malpractice and potentially even illegal behaviour.
Bell Pottinger’s recommended ‘Actions’ include:
‘Create and maintain third-party blogs which are used to seed positive content containing popular keywords that ranks highly in Google search results’
If this means what I think it does â€“ that Bell Pottinger will create and run fake blogs pretending to be from genuine people, then it is not only unethical it is potentially illegal. It could be perceived that this would be pretending to be a consumer, which is illegal under the Consumer Protection Regulations 2008. It’s certainly not within the spirit of the law, even if it is within the letter of the law.
Creating fake blogs like this also doesn’t work that well! You can buy crude software tools that will automate the process for you so there is absolutely no need to pay a substantial retainer for a technique that doesn’t even work. It’s a technique that is used by unscrupulous and usually ineffective SEO companies.
‘â€¦ we would create a dedicated and independent website e.g. www.uzbekistancottonreform.orgâ€¦’
Let’s give Bell Pottinger the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume it would be 100% transparent about who was running and funding this ‘independent’ website, although given the previous recommended action it’s hard to be certain. If it was a genuinely open and transparent site then the recommendation could be seen to make sense.
The Bell Pottinger team presenting didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory by sounding rather clueless about what digital reputation management and online public affairs actually is. Talking of a ‘magical’ digital team and a team that could ‘sort’ Wikipedia made them sound rather amateurish, rather than the professional image I’m sure they were trying to portray.
The lack of specifics when talking about ‘search’ also make the proposal appear amazingly amateur. What terms are people actually searching for to find the negative coverage about Uzbekistan, what is the volume of searches? Both of these matter a lot and effect how easy or difficult it will be to achieve the desired result. Although even if search volumes are low it can still be very important if those searches are being conducted by key influencers such as policy makers, politicians, special advisers, political researchers or think tanks.
It also doesn’t make clear quite how Bell Pottinger would ‘sort’ Wikipedia, but one would hope that it wouldn’t involve violating Wikipedia’s codes and best practices which would prohibit the team from making the changes directly themselves or masquerading as third parties to do so. A legitimate and effective way to ‘clean up’ Wikipedia entries is simply to use your own online properties such as a blog or multimedia newsroom to point out the inaccuracies and link to evidence. Legitimate Wikipedia editors and users will then almost certainly ‘clean up’ the entry for you. The Independent has already covered PR people unethically manipulating Wikipedia (including a quote from me).
The rest of Bell Pottinger’s claims, offers and recommendations are more or less what you’d expect although the Independent article tries to spin some of them to make them sound sinister. Simple search engine optimisation (SEO) activity is described as attempting to ‘manipulate Google’.
In conclusion, this episode once again hasn’t left the public affairs profession covered in glory, but neither is it as shocking or disgraceful as the Independent is trying to spin it. What is does highlight is the need for far greater transparency and openness about what is being done on behalf of clients. That way not only do we help to reduce and hopefully eliminate unethical behaviour, but we also start to rid the profession of amateurism and over hyped claims of what can be achieved.
UPDATE: The Independent now has a transcript of the video in which Bell Pottinger MD boasts “”We’ve got all sorts of dark arts. I told him he couldn’t put them in the written presentation because it’s embarrassing if it gets out because he’s so good at it.”
Thanks to Harry Cole for the embed.
- Liam Fox and Adam Werritty put lobbying back on the agenda (stuartbruce.biz)
- Public Affairs: Soap Box | PRWeek (stuartbruce.biz)