A UK media "sting" raises ethical issues
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A UK media "sting" raises ethical issues

Paul Holmes

The British media has been abuzz all day about a story published by The Independent this morning, based on a “sting” conducted by reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism purporting to represent the government of Uzbekistan. The reporters contacted public relations giant Bell Pottinger to ask its advice on repairing the image of a “brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour.” The subsequent meeting between the firm and the undercover reporters provided the fodder for an outpouring of outrage that raises multiple issues for the public relations profession. This post won’t address all of those issues, but hopefully it can provide some perspective on a few of the most important. First, let’s deal with Bell Pottinger’s claim that it was able to “influence” the Conservative government and Prime Minister David Cameron to raise the matter of copyright infringement with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on behalf of electronics entrepreneur James Dyson—a claim described as “a scandal” in this breathless Daily Telegraph report, and a claim that a government spokesman denied in the same report. From my perspective, the true scandal would be if that government spokesman was telling the truth. Government should be responsive to the needs of its constituents, including businesses with British shareholders, British customers and British employees. If businesses have legitimate concerns—and copyright infringement in China certainly qualifies—then government ought to be open to persuasion. Refusal to listen or adopt those concerns would be arrogant and irresponsible. Second, let’s deal with the Bell Pottinger presentation posted online here. While it’s certainly possible to quibble with some of the language used, the central substance of the presentation seems largely appropriate. In particular, the firm writes that “the only way to turn around… perceptions is to convince our target audiences that genuine and substantial change is underway in Uzbekistan,” and goes on to add that “selling the status quo, or pretending things are changing if they are not will not work. Worse, it would be counterproductive.” In other words, here we see Bell Pottinger offering public relations advice that is not only sound, but ethical, telling the Uzbekis that they have to address the substance of their image problem before they launch a communications campaign. Elsewhere, the firm details specific reforms the government needs to implement; all of these reforms would be positive and beneficial in human rights terms. It states explicitly: “Once we have the assurance that genuine, verifiable reform is being introduced, we can put in place a communications and media strategy that tells the story of how Uzbekistan is changing for the better.” Third, let’s deal with the suggestion that the very act of agreeing to represent Uzbekistan is somehow scandalous or inappropriate, encapsulated in this Independent article about the “vicious dictatorship which Bell Pottinger was prepared to do business with.” Leaving aside the grammatical horrors of that headline, the underlying question ought to be about the ethics of the firm’s advice, not the ethics of the client. And the advice provided by Bell Pottinger in the presentation described above suggests that the PR firm would have acted as a force for positive and beneficial change; if the Uzbekis followed its counsel, conditions in the country would become a little less vicious, human rights would have been improved, children would be better protected. The Independent fails to explain how this would have been a bad thing. The newspaper probably thinks its horror at Bell Pottinger’s willingness to engage with the Uzbekis is a form of high-mindedness; I’d argue it’s a form of moral cowardice. Fourth, and finally for now at least, let’s examine the suggestion from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency that this story highlights the need for a register of lobbyists: “It’s time his government ignored the private protests of the influence industry—whether Conservative peers, former colleagues, friends, neighbours, or wives—and listened to public demands for transparency.” On this, I could not agree more. (Nor could I disagree more with Lord Bell, who dismisses the idea out of hand in the Telegraph article above.) As a passionate advocate for both freedom of speech and responsive government, I believe that both public affairs (campaigns that seek to mobilize public opinion to influence policy) and lobbying (providing information and arguments directly to legislators and their staffs) are honorable pursuits. In fact, I’d go further: I believe they are both absolutely necessary to a functioning and responsive democracy. But I also believe it is incredibly difficult to mount an effective defense of public affairs and lobbying—along the lines of the defense outlined in this post—as long as the activities of the profession are shrouded in secrecy. In fact, that secrecy suggests a sinister connotation—as if it’s something the firms and clients involved should be ashamed of—that undermines the profession and leads to the kind of headlines we have seen today. Legitimate lobbying and public affairs practitioners should be in the forefront of the campaign for greater transparency; only after transparency becomes the norm can they mount a credible, robust and persuasive defense of their profession.
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