Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more

Jonny Mulligan makes the case for positive lobbying, rather than the sad sleaze of Bell Pottinger and slimeball Peter Bingle.

 

Jonny Mulligan is the head of corporate, issues and environment at Unity

Silly, sordid, sleazy and sad is the real reaction to the Bell Pottinger lobby story.

Two senior executives caught by their own hubris over-claiming, under-delivering and damaging a whole industry in the process.

If proven correct these allegations throw up serious questions of ethics and standards which must be addressed. If proven true they make filth of the word ‘lobbying‘ and present the public with a picture of an industry filled with charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

If I was the CEO of FTSE 100 or any company I would be questioning the real value that my agency was delivering for me and whether they were ethical.

In crisis mode, Lord Bell’s response was bizarre and was the wrong reaction. It shows he is out step with the corporate responsibility demanded by companies who are his clients, by politicians and by the wider public.

He accused the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of being unethical and guilty of “underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists”. He then went and lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission.

He should be looking at his own company and the people running it to find out what went so terribly wrong.

The real question is one of ethics.

Why were Lord Bell’s men and Bell Pottinger even considering taking on a job for one million pounds where the only objective was to cover-up child labour and child abuse by a repressive regime?

If I was a client of Lord Bell this is the first question I would be asking.

How can they write CSR programs, or advise clients about ethics, corporate strategy and even sustainability, if they are willing to cover up the truth about child labour all for the filthy lucre. “What does this do to my brand?” Yes, times are tight and business is tough but as an agency you always have the choice to turn down business if it doesn’t fit with your values.

The claim by Tim Collins, Bell Pottinger’s managing director, to have some special ‘dark art’ technology services smacks of the desperation of a man simply interested in a £1 million pay day.

It is nonsense.

I have been told a 14-year-old can be tasked with ‘sorting’ Wikipedia. It may be easy, this can absolutely happen, all the content is user-generated. Manipulating Google results is far more tricky and you would only do it if you have something to hide. The legal people in Google will be better positioned on this one.

To present these as some special digital skills is wrong, they are not. Digital campaigning is about building social currency and engaging with people. It’s about starting conversations and debate with the public and stakeholders.

The industry is at a point of transition where the best campaigns and communications strategies are being run by agencies that are truly nimble and integrated. Agencies that can truly integrate the consumer, brand, digital, political and issues in one fit are the ones that give true ROI on client’s budgets. In these uncertain times it is the clever campaigns and working in genuine partnerships with clients that deliver results.

It is well known that Bell Pottinger was built by Tim Bell on the back of his work for Maggie Thatcher. He built his company around these links. Good luck to him. This is not a secret, and it has always been the same. However, by association, it is the Achilles heel for some of the conservatives and the politicians named in the reports.

This many ‘lobbying’ scandals means that the time has come for change.

The time has come to get all agencies to give full and recorded disclosure around their political links and work. It is the only way the public and clients will know who they are dealing with and their history. If a company wants to work for big oil, despotic regimes and cover-up child labour that is their choice. Just get it on the record so everyone knows.

Agencies who trade on links to one political party or the other may get you an expensive dinner at a political party conference. They might send you a few clippings from Hansard or invite you to have a sherry on the terrace in parliament.

This is not the same as an integrated political campaign that delivers results and improves brand recognition via social currency.

This is not the same as an intelligent lobbying campaign that wins on its merits and the drives policy change by force of its arguments and its engagement with the public and political influencers.

This fiasco is not good for communications agencies and has placed the industry in the media’s firing line for all the wrong reasons.

See also:

Latest lobbying scandal leads right to Cameron’s door – Tamasin Cave, December 6th 2011

Safe in their hands? Tory peers, private health and the threat to our NHS – Shamik Das, November 2nd 2011

Exposed: The lobbyist who said “the public has no right to know who our clients are” – Tamasin Cave, October 18th 2011

Fox’s sliminess shows how much we need lobbying regulation – Tamasin Cave, October 10th 2011

Crony capitalism alive and well under the Conservatives – Tamasin Cave, April 27th 2011

18 Responses to “Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more”

  1. Andrew Soar

    Great Read > Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more by @jmulligan http://t.co/wgm0y1cv #PR

  2. ella dorley-brown

    go go go jonny 5-0 @jmulligan via @leftfootfwd: Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more http://t.co/OqqWsdzA

  3. Political Planet

    Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more: Jonny Mulligan makes the case for positive lobbying,… http://t.co/UG90YzZG

  4. Jim Hacker MP

    Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more: Jonny Mulligan makes the case for positive lobbying,… http://t.co/mCmW0YWe

  5. Unity

    Jonny says it like it is http://t.co/AEzuEOqJ

  6. nik done

    Jonny says it like it is – bell pottinger fiasco http://t.co/AEzuEOqJ

  7. Zio Bastone

    “The industry is at a point of transition where the best campaigns and communications strategies are being run by agencies that are truly nimble and integrated. Agencies that can truly integrate the consumer, brand, digital, political and issues in one fit are the ones that give true ROI on client’s budgets. In these uncertain times it is the clever campaigns and working in genuine partnerships with clients that deliver results.”

    This is puff couched in rather bad business jargon. Please explain why paid lobbying is not profoundly corrupting of the democratic process.

    I see incidentally that Unity describes itself with all the ponderous cheer of a conference of used car salesmen as “an agency that builds brand friendship, brand fans and above all brand love” through “the effective exploitation of three media channels … bought, owned and earned.”

    How appalling that you should have been given a platform here.

  8. Keji Olutimayin

    Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more http://t.co/HBDAl6FN

  9. jmulligan

    Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more http://t.co/sHvOVWB1

  10. Unity

    Nice! RT @leftfootfwd @hello_unity’s Jonny Mulligan on why Bell Pottinger's sleaze shouldn't tar all lobbyists: http://t.co/85HnpsL1

  11. Jonny mulligan

    The only thing worthy of a response here is the question around the role/need for lobbying in the democratic system. 

    Paid lobbying has a roll in any active democracy. Last time I checked 380 degrees, Avazz and Hacked Off are all paid to represent the views of the public to parliamentarians. Green Peace, Friends of the Earth and Age Concern are paid and run policy and parliamentary lobbying campaigns. Unite and the GMB union have policy and public affairs wing that lobby government. Local groups that campaign against the closing of their local hospital and schools are involved with lobbying. These campaigns and interventions all come with a cost and that is a fact of life. 

    The question in this week’s revelations is about the ethics and the transparency behind the lobbying campaigns that are run. There is a Early Day Motion 2261 which was put down by Michael Meacher MP in the house of commons which more MPs should support. 

    The people running the Alliance for Transparency in lobbying have run a very good campaign http://www.lobbyingtransparency.org/content/view/2/7/ and they launched a report in 2008 that would help the industry as whole. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-archive/public-administration-select-committee/pasc0809pn6/ 

    “How appalling that you should have been given a platform here”.   – this is a question for the editor

    Best wishes, Jonny Mulligan   

  12. Emily Kate Taylor

    Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more http://t.co/sHvOVWB1

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  14. Salisbury

    Nice (in its proper sense of meaning nasty) pic of Peter Bingle, Chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, to illustrate your story, though he is not mentioned in it, nor, so far as I have seen, any of the coverage of the affair. Clever old Peter. He’s been hiding out behind the souffles I’ll be bound, as well as consuming quite a few of them by the looks of it. Still, you’d have to go back to his pre-school years to get a picture of Peter before he’d had lunch.

  15. Zio Bastone

    Mr Mulligan:

    Pursuing brand decontamination, your article takes the Gattopardian line that things must change in order to stay the same. So bad lobbyists (eg Bell Pottinger) are incompetent blowhards who take on nasty clients to whom they can’t deliver. The rest of you are really nice and clever guys. Which doesn’t entirely explain why you yourself (presumably) put up a very unflattering picture of someone not caught by the Bureau sting, labelling it helpfully, for those who place their cursors over the image, ‘Arch-sleazeball, Peter ‘that fat fuck’ Bingle’.

    Now isn’t that a bit odd (as well as childish) and not quite so ethically pure?

    My highlighting your language wasn’t gratuitous. The lurch into jargon about nimbleness and integration and so forth is the point at which you briefly give up the moral high ground act and start promoting yourself. The phraseology is tinny precisely because the underlying thinking is so shallow. Essentially all you claim at best is that you would do things better, morality as a sort of higher competence, but dressed up in what de Quincey called a ‘vicious obscurity’. The effect, though, is striking. Like Churchill breaking off from knocking Hitler to talk about ‘integrated British ovens’ with ‘extra low carbon footprints’. Which is why I quoted it. As I also quoted the Unity text (a) because it is palpably mendacious in intent and (b) because there is something totalitarian about offering to conjure up cults, whether of personality or (in this case) of client owned brands. Nor does any of this suggess a great enthusiasm on your part for engaging with public opinion in all its autonomous subjectivity, which is what in my view democratic behaviour is about.

    You are likewise disingenuous in your subsequent response. Professional lobbying has existed for maybe 150 years, PR since Wilson and Bernays. It has no obvious connection with democracy, unlike (say) the right of electors to impress their views on the elected. (I note incidentally that Move to Amend in the US has just won its first victory over corporate personhood. So that is something perhaps.) Corruption, of course, exists within democracy. So must it too be sacrosanct? And unless all cats are grey, there is patently a difference between cabs-for-hire (which is what professional lobbyists actually are) and groups whose focus is around particular sectional interests or concerns (such as unions or charities for example). Just as there is a difference between covering costs and making a tidy profit out of what you do. In which case if you wish to defend paid lobbyists with any seriousness then you need to do so in these terms (by comparing them to barristers, for example) not by some linguistic sleights of hand.

    Finally let me add a note on the conceptual interconnection between PR companies and professional lobbyists on the one hand and Bernays’ ‘public relations’, Strauss’s ‘noble lie’ and Chomsky’s ‘manufacturing consent’ on the other. The activities of the former depend philosophically upon an absolute disdain for the public, who are irrational and stupid (Bernays); who must be deceived for some higher cause (Strauss), and whose consent will be created rather than sought (Chomsky’s point). That disdain is, in my opinion and that of others, deeply undemocratic.

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