The Bell Pottinger Freakout

by Joshua Foust on 12/9/2011 · 1 comment

The public revulsion to Bell Pottinger’s lobbying activities is continuing, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports new stories about a PR firm acting like a PR firm. But while everyone shakes their head at the idea that public relations actually requires manipulating public opinion, it’s worthwhile to take a few steps back and see what “damage” Bell Pottinger really did.

First, let’s take a look at the pitch the Bell Pottinger executives gave to the BIJ reporters posing as agents of Uzbekistan.


There is a lot to unpack in there, but the introduction leapt out to me. The key bullets:

  • “The only way to turn around those perceptions [of Uzbekistan’s horrific human rights record] is to convince our target audiences that genuine and substantial change is underway in Uzbekistan.
  • Selling the status quo, or pretending things are changing when they are not, will not work. Worse, it would be counter-productive.
  • If, however, the government is committed to real and lasting reform, then there are many things Bell Pottinger could do to ensure that such a programme was understood, appreciated and supported in the UK and the EU.

Rather than being some craven attempt to “whitewash” Uzbekistan’s reputation, as both the BIJ and the Independent alleged, this briefing document actually shows Bell Pottinger placing the exact same preconditions on working with Uzbekistan that a coalition of twenty human rights organizations demanded (pdf) the U.S. government use when re-engaging with the regime. If anything, Bell Pottinger is behaving responsibly by refusing to engage in PR activities until reforms take place.

As for the toolkit Bell Pottinger says it will employ in the service of its clients, most of that seemed to be copy-pasted. The BIJ posted a followup story, which heatedly condemns the PR firm for altering Wikipedia pages to benefit its clients (to be clear, the firm did NOT do so for Uzbekistan). In a coordinated story, The Independent quotes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales as condemning Bell Pottinger’s edits as “unethical.”

But is editing Wikipedia to benefit oneself really unethical? Sure, it violates Wikipedia’s terms of use, and is probably stupid, but it’s not like PR firms invented Wikipedia hacking (of a sort). The BIJ expose does not record any Bell Pottinger employees trying to add false information to the Wikipedia entries they examined. They were, however, doing what normal PR firms do — emphasizing the good about their clients while trying to deemphasize the bad. If that is unethical, then the entire practice of public relations is unethical (and granted, many people seem to think that is so).

The practice of editing Wikipedia isn’t even new. Four years ago, Wired broke the story that, shockingly, the people discussed in a freely-edited website will try to alter their own entries to make them more favorable. These people Wales would describe as “unethical” include Congressmen and their staffs, the CIA, Microsoft, Diebold, and Wal-Mart. I suppose they deserve shocking exposes about their nefarious Internet activities as well?

The Bureau’s reporting is having real consequences. An MP in Parliament is trying to set up a registry of lobbyists, despite worries it would hobble commercial lobbying while promoting labor lobbying (one of the many consequences of regulating lobbying I mentioned in my last post). And Bell Pottinger’s shares have dropped in price following Lord Bell’s decision to investigate the scandal, affecting the entire company.

What’s so interesting about this furor is how the initial, blockbuster complaint — that Bell Pottinger had presented a pitch for services to undercover reporters — has had so little relation to the rest of the allegations those reporters have since published. While the first stories were filled with outrage — craven lobbyists gleefully whitewash horrid dictator’s public image! — the reality is, Bell Pottinger said up front, very explicitly, that they cannot and will not lie on behalf of Uzbekistan, that they can only help promote actual, real reforms on the part of the government. And now we learn that a PR agency actually treats its clients public images with the utmost seriousness and tries to promote them.

That being said, the BIJ’s attempt to promote transparency in lobbying, especially of the financial interests at stake in pushing certain narratives into the media, is a laudable goal. People deserve to know the agendas behind the information they’re fed — whether from a bad client like Uzbekistan or a good client like some human rights foundation. I just wish they could promote transparency in a honest, rational way, and not tweak the facts and details of their reporting to generate such heated controversy. The danger in such an approach is that they might delegitimize their own goal by making the whole concept appear exaggerated and overhyped. The BIJ owes its own cause much better.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

James McHardy December 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I think this is a bit of a misleading article – if you look at the investigation it showed a number of things that they did that was ‘unethical’.

For a start, they said they used ‘dark arts’ for their clients – clients that include Sri Lanka, Yemen and Bahrain.

Second, Bell Pottinger ‘created’ a fake character to change Wiki entries. This is not benign. It is unethical.

Third, they showed that they could get access to No 10 Downing street – something that No 10 admitted subsequently.

Dark arts, subterfuge and political influence. This is a 100% justifiable reason to do what the Indy did.

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