Qatar 'dirty tricks' report 'a blemish' on PR sector but 'not common behaviour'

The alleged 'dirty tricks' carried out by a senior PR executive around Qatar's World Cup bid, and his reported work in Syria, is a "blemish" on the industry but "not at all common behaviour", says the president of the PR Council.

The FIFA World Cup heads to Qatar in 2022
The FIFA World Cup heads to Qatar in 2022

However, the allegations shine the spotlight on what action can be taken for undertaking allegedly unethical work when the agency or individual is not a member of a trade association.

The issue of industry ethics has resurfaced after The Sunday Times reported that Michael Holtzman, president of PR agency BLJ Worldwide in New York, was the sender of an email to a senior adviser to the Qatari bid team that urged academics and journalists in America and Australia "to promote negative aspects of their respective bids in the media", in apparent violation of Fifa rules.

Yesterday, The Times reported that Holtzman was employed by the Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic in 2010, with allegations that he helped arrange a 'fawning' interview with Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in Vogue.

The allegations come almost one year after the Bell Pottinger scandal. That agency collapsed after it was thrown out of the PRCA, the UK trade association, for breaching ethical guidelines in relation to its controversial work in South Africa.

BLJ Worldwide, which has offices in New York, Washington, DC, and Doha, is understood to not be a member of a trade body.

BLJ Worldwide is not to be confused with UK-based BLJ London, which is an entirely separate business following a demerger in 2010. BLJ London has made it clear that it is not connected to the activities of BLJ Worldwide.

Kim Sample, president of US trade body the PR Council, told PRWeek: "It’s so unfortunate when something like this happens because everyone is quick to think, ‘oh, that’s the PR industry’. It’s sort of a blemish on the industry but it is not at all common behavior. There are so many examples of firms that, even if they feel something is in an ethical grey area, will walk away from the business.

"I think the good side of this is it’s a chance for our agency leaders to reiterate and modify their ethics policies in their firms, if it is at all appropriate.

"At the PR Council we have ethical guidelines that people are signing on to on a regular basis. And we have a pretty strict policy that we would adhere to if a member of ours was engaged in something like this.

"We find that many clients want the validation that firms are acting ethically and they’ll use our member database to find a firm or it’s just as an important element for almost every brand."

Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA and CEO of umbrella trade group ICCO, told PRWeek: "The allegations in the Sunday Times underline the importance of PR practitioners being accountable for their actions. The PRCA Code of Conduct and the ICCO Helsinki Declaration are the domestic and international gold standards of ethical behaviour in our industry.

"It is telling that the company in question is held accountable to no association Code. So here's our message to the public, clients, media, and decision-makers alike: if an agency has chosen to be unaccountable, you should ask yourself why, before engaging with them and their services."

BLJ Worldwide, previously known as Brown Lloyd James, was founded by Peter Brown, who previously worked in communications and management for The Beatles; former newspaper editor Sir Nicholas Lloyd; and Howell James, former head of corporate affairs at Barclays.

Neither Lloyd nor James have any role in BLJ Worldwide since 2010 and 2004 respectively.

PRWeek has contacted BLJ’s New York office but received no response at the time of publication.

Sunil Gulati, a 12-year president of U.S. Soccer, and chair of the committee organizing the 2022 World Cup bid, also declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for U.S. Soccer.

Holtzman joined BLJ after working for Weber Shandwick, where he led the successful campaign for Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Holtzman was named PRWeek’s 2002 Professional of the Year, in large part for that work, and the Beijing bid was named 2002 Campaign of the Year.

Weber declined to comment on Holtzman’s involvement in the World Cup controversy.

This article was updated on Tuesday afternoon (31 July) with clarification about BLJ Worldwide and BLJ London, and with additional information.

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