When PR gets muddied, the big mops come out

Let’s hope the PR industry cleans up its house 2012.

Two stories at the end of last year really hit home that it’s time to bring out the big mops to clean out the stables.

The British case of executives in a lobbying and PR firm, Bell Pottinger, bragging that they could influence politicians and ..Google search results through some ‘creative’ tactics. Hmmm! Here’s how The Independent newspaper in the UK reported on the sting operation:

“Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan – a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and representatives of its cotton industry in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients, what techniques they use, and how much of their work is open to public scrutiny.”*

The sting was conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The claim that it could do some ‘image laundering’, and what they called ‘dark arts’ struck me as nothing new. Bell Pottinger is in good (bad) company.

If you look closely at lobby firms, they seem to dabble in this pseudo science. Why? because dictators and bad governments are gullible enough to believe that their record could be scrubbed clean with a bit of good

The Livingston Group, which is a lobbying firm offering PR, proudly lists the foreign ministry of Libya as a client; other clients include universities corporations and other countries –such as the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Turkey. Here’s a short list:

  • Muammar Qadaffi had a PR agency back in 2008, called Brown Lloyd James. It specializes in Government Relations.
  • During the first Gulf war, the government of Kuwait was known to have used about 20 PR, law and lobby firms. One of them, with a strong reputation for Government Relations, was The Rendon Group. It practically stage-managed stories around the ‘liberation’ of the country.
  • China uses a PR agency for what it calls calls “external propaganda work and culture exchange.”
  • The Podesta Group was an influential lobby for Hosni Mubarak’s regime. It calls itself “a bipartisan government relations and public affairs firm with a reputation for employing creative strategies to achieve results.”

Fortunately, regarding the Bell Pottinger PR scandal, the most reputable organizations, including the CIPR (the UK PR bocy) and the PRSA (the US equivalent)  have come out and condemned this practice. They rightfully call their claims idiotic or unethical.

And the other story?

A minor skirmish, but it involved the world’s largest agency, Edelman. The agency parted ways with its client, Twitter after a few months. But the fall out was not so much about PR practice but how they handled the break-up. Edelman was in the news last year when it took on Rupert Murdock’s News Corp.

As for the PR industry, there is an interesting move worth following. The PRSA is in the process of updating the definition of PR. This was the definition, in place since 1982:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

The new definitions, being voted on are here: worth reading, and watching out for!

Two interesting sidebars to the Bell Pottinger story, above:

* Bell Pottinger also mentions representing the government of Sri Lanka as one of its clients. The transcript speaks for itself.

* The chairman of Bell Pottinger, Lord Tim Bell, was the former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi. As you know, the movie The Iron Lady is now showing.

2 thoughts on “When PR gets muddied, the big mops come out

  1. Pingback: Fleishman-Hillard in Nederland

  2. Pingback: The Rise and Rise of Pinterest & Social Media in China and More Digital Highlights | Fleishman-Hillard in the Netherlands

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