It was reported this week in The Independent that the UK’s largest PR firm had been caught ‘secretly boasting about its access to the Government and how it uses the "dark arts" to bury bad coverage’.
The scoop was based on an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, targeting a trio of directors at Bell Pottinger, which is part of Chime Communications.
Chime chairman Lord Bell attacked the reporters for ‘unethical, underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists’.
But as the future of the lobbying industry hangs in the balance, senior industry figures told PRWeek that the episode warranted further investigation.
With the Government set to outline its plans for a statutory register of lobbyists in the next few weeks, Lansons head of public affairs Mark Adams said it was important for the profession to be seen as honourable and trustworthy, to prevent a tough new crackdown on lobbying.
Acting in a personal capacity, Adams revealed he had submitted a complaint to the PRCA, of which Bell Pottinger is a member.
‘I make no claim that Bell Pottinger has broken the industry code of conduct,’ he said. ‘However, in light of the newspaper reports, I think it is important that the issue is investigated. Effective self-regulation is in the best interest of the lobbying profession.’
Other agency figures turned on Bell Pottinger. Writing on Twitter, one senior Weber Shandwick lobbyist complained: ‘These guys give lobbyists a bad name.’
One CEO of a mid-sized consultancy told PRWeek: ‘It’s a shame because public affairs should not be like that – and it is not like that in the majority of cases.’
But other public affairs professionals took a different view. One lobbyist with links to Bell Pottinger said: 'Tim Collins is one of the best guys around. Most of what he was "caught" saying is the kind of stuff firms put openly in their promo material.'
Another seasoned agency lobbyist claimed that boasting of influence and over-promising to clients ‘happens all the time’ in public affairs.
However, the source added: ‘Bell Pottinger broke two cardinal rules: never offer to manage a reputation unless there is a clear and evidenced disconnect between perception and reality, and never say anything sensitive to someone unless you are certain of who they are.’
The PRCA confirmed it had recieved Adams' complaint, adding that the process of investigating it was under way.
To read the full complaint click here
10 Number of London PR firms contacted by undercover reporters
2 Number of PR firms that refused to take the business
5 Number of PR firms that expressed an interest in the business
£1m Bell Pottinger’s minimum fee to fictitious Uzbek representatives
Source: The Independent, 6 December
- Reporters from the bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan, a brutal dictatorship, and representatives of the Uzbek cotton industry, within which child labour is widespread.
- The bureau contacted ten London firms. Two refused to take the business and several others did not reply. Five expressed an interest – Bell Pottinger quoted ‘£1m-plus’ as its fee.
- The three Bell Pottinger directors caught in the sting were: Tim Collins, MD of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs; David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations; and David Richmond, who works for the firm’s overseas arm, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières.