Monday, March 10, 2008

Apparently there are some things even PR agencies won’t do…

During questioning before a House of Commons select committee on public administration last week, Bell Pottinger, agency head, Peter Bingle, announced that the agency had backed out of negotiations with the government of Zimbabwe (timing undisclosed) to “advise” it on public affairs. The London agency, arguably the leading UK public relations and public affairs firm, is part of the Chime Communications group, chaired by former Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s press adviser, Lord Bell. Bingle explained to the select committee (holding hearings on the subject of regulating lobbying yet again) that “We will turn down clients. We had a call from Zimbabwe asking to advise Zimbabwe. We said thank you very much, but no. It would have been a fairly malign campaign if someone had run it.” Of course Zimbabwe is also a conveninet throw-away in such a context. It’s unlikely that the Zim government would respond to a House of Commons request for verification of the Bingle claim…

It is not that Bell Pottinger doesn’t represent some controversial and potentially unsavoury clients. According to wire stories released last July surrounding the detention in and deportation from Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (is it the Congo again?) of Billy Rautenbach, a well-known business associate of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Bell Pottinger was at that time representing either the Province of Katanga or the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The firm has, like many other successful agencies, represented any number of high profile and controversial individuals, companies, and government entities. But apparently, there are those it will not represent. As Bingle explained, when considering offers from a foreign government “we would talk to the [UK] foreign office, take a view, look at whether we would want to work for that type of country or company”. Myanmar can scratch Bell Pottinger off their short list then.

So, is public relations not as blind as justice? Defense attornies often argue that even guilty clients require representation to ensure that their rights are respected. Does the PR profession not believe that even repugnant clients like Mugabe deserve good PR representation?

The Bloated Plutocrat thinks not. “Mugabe is a thug. Regardless of whether Bell Pottinger backed off representing Zimbabwe because of pressure, direct or percieved, from the Congolese or other African clients, or because they were doing the right thing, it was the right decision. To do so would have been bad for business. It would have put them in their own PR pickle and would have soured things with their friends in high places in both Houses of Parliament and the Government.”

The Bleeding Heart is equivocal. “Mugabe has made horrible mistakes and has undoubtedly betrayed some of the democratic goals of the liberation movement that he led, but he was the leader of a hugely important liberation movement and there is no doubt that much of Zimbabwe’s ‘bad press’ is the result of sour grapes and bias on the part of the British media. There’s no good reason that Bell Pottinger should not have worked to help the government of Zimbabwe. After all, they worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. There is no reason except that it would have complicated their lobbying efforts at home in the UK where President Mugabe is vilified out of all proportion. The US has North Korea, Cuba, and Iran as its bogeymen. The UK is stuck with poor Zimbabwe.”

Regardless of Bell Pottinger’s reasons for rejecting a Zimbabwe overture, if in fact they did, it looks like there are some things even PR agencies won’t do. That's nice to hear.

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