Iran's London embassy has approached Hill & Knowlton with a view to
hiring the agency for political and communications advice.
The Iranians wanted an agency to update their country's image at
Westminster and leave behind images of crowds chanting 'Death to the
American Satan' and memories of the Salman Rushdie fatwa.
The move is evidence of advances by liberal voices within an Iranian
establishment that last year organised its first ministerial visit to
the UK since before the 1979 revolution.
It does, however, raise difficult questions for the PR industry. With
regimes across the world becoming increasingly aware of how to play the
media game, should the PR industry co-operate?
The legal profession is faced with a similar dilemma and operates under
its famed cab rank principle, meaning that since everyone is entitled to
a hearing and someone will take the work, it may as well be the person
at the front of the queue.
In the current case, H&K held discussions with the Iranians but does not
expect them to move on. But even if the embassy did come back to the
agency, H&K public and corporate affairs MD Andy Pharoah says he would
think carefully before accepting any work.
Pharoah insists he would need to consider three factors: principle,
commercial logic, and some practical considerations. In the first
bracket he says he would want to be comfortable with the extent to which
the messages put out were truthful. In the second, he would need to be
happy about the impact any work would have on H&K's reputation.
Practically, he would assess whether the work was feasible in the way
'We wouldn't require individuals to work on things they don't want to.
We'd take soundings from other people, including the government if
needed,' Pharoah says.
Although Iran is moving in a reformist direction, there are more extreme
regimes. If Afghanistan's Taliban - which has imposed a strict system of
sharia law which bars women from working or studying - wanted a UK
agency's help to promote the virtues of their harsh legal system, would
they be welcome?
Pharoah says that in recent years, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran, Rwanda,
Nigeria and Cambodia have approached him. Some, such as Robert Mugabe's
Harare regime - which appears to be running a land-grabbing through
intimidation policy - he refused even to talk to.
Others in the industry also make personal judgements as to what is
IPR president Ian Wright says: 'You can distinguish between popular
religious regimes and unpopular despotic regimes.'
Issues Analysis CEO Roger Haywood says: 'I would introduce moral
judgements. If you have a country that is trying to change, they have a
perfect right to acceptable PR. It is legitimate to represent anyone if
you believe in it,' he says.
Agencies playing judge and jury in this way are not to everyone's
Chime chairman Lord Bell, says that when approached by foreign
governments, the key factor is: 'Whether or not we can do an effective
job. I cannot sit in judgement of other cultures. The relevant things
are their objectives, the achievability of expectations, and whether the
resources are sufficient.'
Bell has experience in this area, having acted for a range of states
facing allegations of human rights abuses including Brunei, Malaysia,
Turkey and South Africa. He says: 'Normally, businessmen come to see you
and you never know if you are really working for the government. They
would be looking for inward investment, improvements in tourism,
financial investment, international recognition, or opening doors for
But if the criteria is simply whether the shady characters in your
office can be satisfied, is there a danger of the industry's reputation
being tarnished by agencies working for regimes some see as
PRCA director-general Chris MacDowall thinks this unlikely as PR is
generally 'driven by conscience'. He cites the case of tobacco companies
finding it hard to hire agencies as evidence of the industry's stiff
Wright says the IPR code of conduct is reasonably effective. 'It is
difficult to believe that Nazi Germany could be represented by an agency
following our code of conduct. It is legitimate to represent anyone but
only if you believe in it,' he adds.
Consolidated Communications account director Ilan Jacobs, who has worked
with Israel throughout its recent period of global condemnation, says:
'It's not possible to have hard and fast rules, you need to look at each
case. Our record in Northern Ireland means you might find some Irish
agencies object to working for the British government, for example.'
Many accept that commercial reality means most clients, however
abhorrent, will find representation of some kind if they want it enough.
All the industry can hope is that they are open about it.
The fact the debate is going on at all - and that agencies can afford to
be choosy - underlines how well the industry is doing. But as PR matures
and play an increasingly prominent role, it is unlikely to be one that
will go away.