Agencies defend work for foreign regimes following Guardian report

A fresh debate about ethics in the UK PR industry has been sparked by claims that PR consultancies are increasingly making money from foreign regimes with questionable human rights records.

Recovering from the genocide: Rwanda
Recovering from the genocide: Rwanda

A story on the front page of The Guardian (4 August) asserted that top UK PR firms have made London the 'world capital of reputation laundering'.

The article stated: 'An investigation by The Guardian has revealed that the capital's public relations firms are earning millions of pounds a year promoting foreign regimes with some of the world's worst human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka.'

Among the agencies given prominent mentions in the piece were Bell Pottinger, Hill & Knowlton, Portland and Racepoint Group.

Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell told the paper: 'I am not an international ethics body.' Bell further sets out his views in an exclusive interview with PRWeek.

Approached by PRWeek, H&K chief marketing officer, Tony Burgess-Webb also sought to defend his agency. He said: 'There is a genuine debate to be had around business ethics in the PR industry, as any other. But this debate needs to be based on a sensible and balanced view, rather than a one-sided perspective on what constitutes right or wrong.

'We have formalised our approach with a business ethics committee that reviews potential clients and business opportunities that any of our managers considers controversial.'

Racepoint Group MD Cathy Pittham insisted that ethical considerations were important to her agency: 'We would not ask our staff to work on something that we did not personally believe in as a leadership team.'

Referring to the substance of The Guardian article, Pittham added: 'We were introduced to the Rwandan government a year ago ...

Our programme focuses on positioning the country with potential investors, the tourist industry and to re-engage the Diaspora in Europe in particular ...

At all times, the impact and devastation of the genocide Rwanda suffered is acknowledged.

'Our remit is to facilitate open and honest dialogue and to balance historic perceptions with true representation of the country as it is today.'


See news editor David Singleton's opinion on this story



DAVID GALLAGHER, President, Ketchum Pleon Europe

Agencies need to take responsibility for how they select their entire roster of clients, not just those from abroad. If foreign clients favour British consultancies, so much the better, as professional and ethical standards are higher here than anywhere in the world.


Simply, the balance is between opportunities to genuinely effect positive change, where progress depends on engagement, and providing counsel in a way that is ethical and transparent. It requires judgement. If it can't be done, then be prepared to walk away.


9 Hill & Knowlton foreign contracts cited by The Guardian

9 Bell Pottinger foreign contracts cited by The Guardian

2 Grayling foreign contracts cited by The Guardian

1 Racepoint foreign contract cited by The Guardian

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