PR firms with their own image problems…
Reputation launderers: the London PR firms with their own image problems
London’s public relations industry has got a PR problem. Top firms such as Bell Pottinger, Brown Lloyd James, Portland and Grayling are coming under intense scrutiny because of their work for foreign governments or in regimes of dubious repute.
The catalyst has been the Arab uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia, which have raised questions about the ethics of these PR firms. Critics claim that London has turned into the global capital of reputation laundering.
Bell Pottinger, run by Margaret Thatcher’s former image adviser Lord Bell, has already faced protests outside its High Holborn office because of its work for Bahrain.
But it is not just spin doctors working in the Middle East that are being accused of “propping up” unplesasant regimes. Tonight, opponents of the authoritarian regime in Belarus are demonstrating outside the Victoria HQ of Grayling because the PR firm has opened an office in the former Soviet republic.
Actor Jude Law and playwright Sir Tom Stoppard are backing the protesters, who are then marching to the House of Commons to hear the two theatre stars speak at a rally, organised by Index on Censorship and the Free Theatre of Belarus.
Tory donor Lord Chadlington, boss of Grayling’s parent company Huntsworth, is adamant that his firm is not an “apologist” for Belarus and does not work for any foreign government. Grayling’s office in Minsk is just to help international clients keen to invest and explore privatisation opportunities.
But Mike Harris, public affairs manager of Index on Censorship, says: “We are targeting Grayling because it is currently working in getting inward investment in Europe’s last dictatorship and it is the only major PR firm in Belarus.”
For Index on Censorship and other critics, there is a wider point about PR firms in dubious regimes. “They are not just the messenger,” says Harris. “They try to normalise these regimes with nice pieces in the papers about holidays in these places and business features on investment. They are instrumental in keeping the economy of these regimes going.”
If there is one London firm synonymous with this international spin it is Bell Pottinger – even though, as Britain’s biggest PR agency, it also represents many uncontroversial UK household brands.
Recent clients have included the Egyptian Ministry of Information, the Economic Development Board of Bahrain and the governments of Belarus and Sri Lanka, and it has also worked in Yemen.
Bell is unapologetic, saying there were only five protesters about its Bahrain work, including a BBC journalist, outside his Holborn office.
“No amount of media harassment or sensationalism is going to stop me representing clients that have a legitimate right to tell their story,” says Bell, who argues that everyone is entitled to representation so long as it does not involve doing anything illegal. He fired a member of staff last Tuesday for putting out false information, he adds, but declines to elaborate.
However, Bell admits: “There is a fad for attacking PR companies. There’s a thing to attack bankers, there’s a thing to attack accountants.
You just have to ride with the punches.”
Fad or not, it is easy to see why London PR agencies are under attack. Their work, by its nature, often takes place in the shadows. What’s more, increasing numbers of foreigners have been flocking to the capital, a key media hub with agenda-setting global news sources, for PR advice.
Importantly, there are also few regulations that govern London PR firms, unlike in America, where firms working for foreign powers have to be registered with the authorities. Indeed, while every London PR firm likes to boast its roll-call of corporate clients, they are not always so keen to admit their work for dubious regimes.
Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief of PR Week, says: “It’s all under the radar. It’s only anecdotally that you can find out what’s going on. That’s what makes it so powerful, of course, but it is also what can give it its shadowy reputation.”
PR firms are finding some of their harshest critics are online, where self-appointed pressure groups can kick up a fuss.
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, which is backed by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, has called for a compulsory register of UK PR firms. Other like-minded groups include the Really Ethical PR Company, which was behind the protest at Bell Pottinger and is threatening similar action against Brown Lloyd James.
BLJ has come under scrutiny because of its work for Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, which included advising on a trip to the United Nations in 2009 and placing opinion pieces in newspapers.
The London arm has been keen to stress that it was its sister firm in New York, run by Peter Brown, which held the account and set up an office in Tripoli. The UK office, led by former newspaper editor Sir Nick Lloyd, maintains it had no contract with the Libyans and received no money from them. (The Evening Standard is a BLJ client.)
The problem for PR agencies is that perception matters. Bell may say working for Bahrain to promote economic development is not the same as working to support its Government, but such a distinction appears lost on the critics.
Similarly, Bell Pottinger promoted an international Arab football tournament that was hosted in Yemen, yet Bell maintains that was not government work.
Other companies suggest their advice is more akin to management consultancy than PR. It’s an argument used by Portland, the firm run by Alastair Campbell’s former No 10 deputy Tim Allan, which has helped to restructure press offices of a number of leaders in developing countries. Portland declines to reveal any of those countries but has admitted giving advice to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Allan says: “All organisations are professionalising the way they communicate. When governments which have previously been secretive do that, it is not an affront to democracy.
“In many cases, communicating more professionally is an essential part of that process. And getting good professional ethical advice is part of it as well.”
This work is not confined to the few firms mentioned so far – or just to London. Experts say that American giants Hill & Knowlton, Edelman and Burson-Marsteller, which all have offices in London, have worked extensively for foreign governments.
City financial PR firms such as Brunswick and Financial Dynamics may shun working directly for governments but they have still done work for foreign, state-backed entities such as sovereign wealth investment funds.
Money, and not morality, may continue to be the deciding factor. Rogers of PR Week, says: “If they’re approached by some foreign government saying, ‘We’d like to pay you half a million pounds for some fascinating work’, it’s hard to see them turning it down, but ultimately it’s down to that firm’s ethical judgment,” he says.
Certainly some of Bell Pottinger’s work appears to go beyond the realms of conventional PR. The “Special Projects” section of its website says the firm “provides strategic communications services in support of conflict transformation, stabilization, nation-building and counter-radicalisation operations in conflict and post-conflict zones”.
PR agencies are less coy when it comes to talking about the work that they have spurned. Freud Communications, run by Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law Matthew Freud, is understood to have turned down approaches from Colonel Gaddafi “about 10 times” and now deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on five occasions, though he’s happy to work for Leyla Aliyeva, the daughter of Azerbaijan’s repressive president Ilham Aliyev.
These days, a top PR adviser is more like a super-fixer, able to open doors at the highest levels of government, business and the media. It’s little wonder that a leading agency boss can earn as much as ?3 million a year, while a partner in a top PR firm might expect ?400,000 in pay and bonus.
So reputation laundering – or, to use a Bell Pottinger phrase, “reframing narratives” – certainly pays. But if it forces the PR giants to spin their own spin, perhaps the time has come to look for cleaner clients.
SULTANS OF SPIN
Boss: Lord Bell
Biography: Margaret Thatcher’s PR adviser and former ad man at Saatchi & Saatchi. He chairs Chime, parent company of Bell Pottinger
Offices: London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Beirut, Bahrain, Washington, Singapore and others
Notable clients (past and present): Egyptian Ministry of Information, Economic Development Board of Bahrain, governments of Sri Lanka, Zambia and Belarus, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Yemen (inter-Arab football tournament), exiled Libyan royal Muhammad Al-Senussi, Sultan of Brunei, Airbus, Unilever, Vodafone
Brown Lloyd James
Bosses: Sir Nick Lloyd (London), Peter Brown (New York, pictured)
Biographies: Lloyd is ex-editor of News of the World and Daily Express. Brown once worked for the Beatles’ management
Office: London. Sister US firm in New York runs offices in Tripoli and also in Qatar, Washington, Moscow, Beijing
Notable clients (past and present): Libyan government (US-based client), Principality of Monaco, Qatari Diar property arm, Russia Today TV channel, Ria Novosti (Russian news agency), Al Jazeera English, Telegraph Media Group, Associated Newspapers, Evening Standard
Boss: Tim Allan
Biography: Diehard Blair aide who was Alastair Campbell’s deputy in Number 10 before moving to BSkyB
Offices: London, New York, Nairobi
Notable clients (past and present): Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his country’s presidency of G8 countries (worked in co-operation with Brussels’ lobbying firm GPlus, where Nick Clegg used to work), helped to restructure press offices for several undisclosed leaders in developing countries, Russian aluminium mogul Oleg Deripaska, Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, Google, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Facebook. (Allan’s old No 10 boss, Campbell, is a part-time adviser).