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

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