After Bell Pottinger, who would PR the Saudi government? (And who does already?)

The Saudi government is looking for PR support? 'I know just the firm,' read a wry tweet from one journalist last week, days after Bell Pottinger's public humiliation.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (©Pixabay)
Mecca, Saudi Arabia (©Pixabay)

While Financial Times journalist Josh Spero's tweet was clearly mischievous in nature, it raises a question for PR agencies that has perhaps never seemed more urgent; how do you decide whether or not to work with controversial clients?

Last week's news about the Saudi regime seeking extra PR help - reported by the FT, although not written by Spero himself - said the country's information ministry had an early-stage plan to counter negative media coverage of the Kingdom, involving setting up PR "hubs" in overseas cities including London.

From my conversations with sources familiar with geopolitics and international government comms work, it is not clear whether the Saudi PR plan is actually going ahead as planned.

What is clear is that contentious client relationships are an extremely delicate topic - especially as the smoke emanating from the bonfire that is Bell Pottinger continues to waft across the industry. Many UK agencies with genuine experience of working with governments outside of the Western world are unwilling to go on record to talk about the ethics of it.

Who already works for the Saudi regime?

Burson's Middle East arm ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller has worked for the government for several years, as has Qorvis MSL - that relationship started long before Qorvis' acquisition by MSLGroup in 2014. Freuds helped launch the country's Vision 2030 reform programme last year, but is "not currently working for the Saudi government", a spokesman said. Consulum, an agency set up in 2013 by two Bell Pottinger veterans, also works for part of the government. Milltown Partners is widely believed in the industry to have the Saudi regime as a client, but this could not be confirmed.

One individual argues that the "taxi rank approach", in which agencies say that anyone turning up asking for PR support is entitled to it, is not justifiable. Yes, an individual accused of a crime deserves legal representation in the court of law, but applying this to PR smacks of a convenient way to justify throwing away your moral compass.

There is a difference between an unsavoury client, and unsavoury work. One source who has in the past worked with the Saudi government said that they drew a line between providing straightforward PR services, and creating outright propaganda. That source added that their experience was that American agencies had much lower ethical standards on this matter. 

Similarly, much of Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay seems to have been very normal corporate PR - it was only the section which spilled over into propaganda that was really a problem. 

It should, of course, be noted that Bell Pottinger might, in an alternate reality, have got away completely scot-free for its South African misbehaviour. After all, what really moved this story along was the fact that South Africa's Democratic Alliance saw political capital to be made from campaigning against the firm, and the fact Bell Pottinger was subject to PRCA disciplinary procedures.

If the agency you work for is a PRCA member, then you should think seriously about whether NGOs, human rights groups or political dissidents might use the PRCA complaints procedure to shine a bright light on you.

Most importantly, of course, PR professionals need to be think seriously about what kind of work they do and don't think is acceptable.

Oh - and if you are in the market for Saudi Government PR work, do keep an eye out for any approaches which strike you as unusual - as an agency called Bell Pottinger discovered a few years ago, newspapers occasionally put together sting operations along these lines.

Read next: Bell Pottinger and beyond: does the PR industry have an ethical problem? 

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