OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Now that the storm clouds have passed, it’s worth mulling over the issues that put Bell Pottinger, the PR and public affairs agency, where it really didn’t want to be: in the newspapers, rather than ensuring it’s clients were well represented there.  The timing was terrible: the Christmas party season was getting into full swing and the unwelcome publicity played havoc with the firm’s seasonal preparations.

It also had politicians from all sides, their expenses furore behind them, publicly demanding transparency and regulation of a clandestine industry, while a number of journalists, otherwise unengaged with proceedings at the Leveson enquiry, also missed the irony and roundly condemned the shadowy world of political lobbyists.

To cut a long controversy short, the agency was approached by undercover reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in a sting operation that the now defunct News of the World’s Fake Sheikh would have been proud of.  Effectively, they were invited to pitch for what was billed as a potentially lucrative new contract to improve the reputation of the Government of Uzbekistan, a body with a record on human rights that falls a tad short of most people’s views of acceptable. During the meeting, a senior Bell Pottinger executive shone a little light on ‘the dark arts’ of lobbying.

These acts of black magic, the executive disclosed, include contacting cabinet ministers, up to and including the Prime Minister, to seek direct intervention on issues affecting the agency’s clients. Furthermore, the executive boasted of special access to senior Government officials and a talent for influencing Government policy. He even went as far as to admit that the firm edited Wikipedia entries to replace critical comments with more acceptable words.  The pitch’s saving grace was a demand that the Uzbekistan Government commit to tangible, positive social change.

When asked for comment by a journalist on the executive’s claims of government influence, a spokesman for the Prime Minister initially denied that any lobbying firm could exert influence over Government policy.  “It is simply untrue to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company influences government,” he said.  This raised the fundamental question: so why pay a lobbying firm then?

When subsequently pointed out that it is entirely reasonable for a business that pays tax, employs people and creates economic and social value to seek government support in a parliamentary democracy, the Downing Street press office changed its stance.  Now it’s ok for lobbyists to influence Government policy where the Government “… think they have legitimate concerns.”

The prospect of any Government legislating on policy without input from the businesses that live with the repercussions scares me more than the thought that the British Government would ever consider becoming investment managers for the country’s banking sector.

It is true that Bell Pottinger has, and maybe still does, represent both individuals and regimes that haven’t always lived up to the standards of behaviour we expect of political leaders in the west.  Come to think of it, political leaders in the west haven’t always lived up to those standards.  But does that make Bell Pottinger, or any other public affairs agency, bad?  No one would deny another, no matter what they are alleged to have done, access to legal representation. Why does the same concession not apply to public affairs counsel?

The generally accepted answer is to create a register where all lobbying firms in the UK are required to publish details of the clients they work for.  This seems straight forward enough, as long as no competitive advantage is forgone, but the process itself has become wrapped up in its own controversy.

The UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), two industry bodies, have been working together to help define how such a register would be constructed.  Once agreed, the register would be managed through the offices of UKPAC.  However, the bodies recently fell out over the task, with the PRCA walking away with the ball under its arm muttering rude words about UKPAC’s competence.  It has now proposed that any register needs to be managed by an independent authority.

Fingers have also being pointed at Mr Cameron’s office in Downing Street, which has missed a number of self-imposed deadlines to publish its recommendations on how such a register should work.  Given that Cameron’s concerns over transparency in the lobbying industry was the starting point in the BIJ’s sting operation, maybe he needs to up his game a bit?

Perhaps I should declare an interest.  I have benefited from the input of Bell Pottinger and other public affairs agencies over the years. No laws were broken. No clandestine meetings or lunches were held.  I also count many practitioners among my friends and colleagues.  Most dress a bit too formally for my liking, but to ask an entire industry, which for the most part operates transparently and ethically, to reinvent itself because one executive over promised a potential client is the same as suggesting that every journalist in the land hacked Hugh Grant’s mobile phone or that every politician in Westminster has a floating duck pond decorating their moats.

Furthermore, only the most naïve among us would not believe that successive British Governments have lobbied corporations when they need a favour – to make a capital investment here, or delay closing a facility there, or to build something in a high unemployment location rather than somewhere else.  Usually, these requests are then used to try to help make the Government of the day look a bit letter.

Running a business, like running a country, is a game for grown ups. But the deeper we get into recession, and the greater our need for strong leadership to address some pretty fundamental problems, the more the key pillars of our society are behaving like adolescents.

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