PR people aren't defense lawyers

Ethical considerations should underpin all credible PR practice - not everyone deserves PR representation and black ops should not be part of the communications playbook.

Qatar's winning bid for the 2022 soccer World Cup has come under scrutiny (Pic: Getty Images).
Qatar's winning bid for the 2022 soccer World Cup has come under scrutiny (Pic: Getty Images).

Former Beatles manager and controversial communications agency owner Peter Brown seems to believe that, like a defendant in a court case, everyone deserves PR representation.

"I would love to take on Iran as a client," Brown told the Financial Times in 2011. "There are areas of commonality that ought to be exploited."

Richard Edelman, owner of the biggest and best-known PR firm in the world disagrees.

"Not everyone deserves representation," Edelman told me this week in relation to a story broken on Sunday by the London Times about Brown’s firm, now known as BLJ Worldwide, apparently masterminding a black ops campaign to help Qatar win the bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

The Times’ story included an email from BLJ executive Michael Holtzman, which detailed a four-month "extensive campaign" the firm conducted to discredit Qatar’s competitors for its World Cup bid.

Holtzman’s email referenced BLJ Worldwide’s success in recruiting academics and journalists in America and Australia "to promote negative aspects of their respective bids in the media". Soccer governing body FIFA’s rules say bidders should avoid "any written or oral statements of any kind, whether adverse or otherwise, about the bids or candidatures of any other member association".

Beyond any discussion about what type of clients agencies should work with, the nature of the work uncovered by the newspaper broke many of the ethical underpinnings of the PR profession espoused by trade organizations including Page and the PR Council.

Stories such as this bring the PR industry into disrepute and reinforce lazy mainstream media stereotypes of the profession as being inhabited by spin-doctors and dark arts practitioners.

Brown’s philosophy about everyone deserving representation had already been evidenced by many previous BLJ assignments. It attracted attention previously for its controversial work on behalf of clients including Syria and its dictator, Bashar al-Assad; the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family; and controversial Iranian resistance group Mujahadeen-e-Khalq.

For his part, Holtzman last came to the attention of PRWeek in 2016 when he was hired via a company he runs called Bellwether Strategies to improve the image of Panama following the release of the Panama Papers. He was quoted in the same FT article as Brown back in 2011: "What we do isn’t all sweetness and light. There is always a risk in those countries that you will have mud in your face and arrows in your back."

According to its website, Bellwether Strategies shares at least one other member of staff with BLJ Worldwide, Ethan Wagner, as well as the same office address listed on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents, which U.S. companies have to submit when they undertake work for foreign governments.

The agency and its associated entities certainly number a curious cast of characters under their umbrella. It originally traded as Brown Lloyd James, although it is unclear if it was still doing so when it undertook the work for the Qatar World Cup bid.

All three eponymous founders originally hail from the other side of the pond. Sir Nicholas Lloyd and Howell James are both former advisers to upper levels of Conservative governments in the U.K. 

Lloyd formerly edited British tabloid newspapers the Daily ExpressSunday People, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, which was once the highest-selling English language newspaper in the world but shut down in 2011 after a phone-hacking and corruption scandal.

James is a former adviser to British Prime Minister John Major and served as permanent secretary for government communications under Labour PM Tony Blair. He was also a corporate affairs chief at the BBC and Barclays Bank.

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

Brown assumed management of The Beatles and of Apple Corps in the late 60s, after Brian Epstein died. On the demise of The Beatles, he became president and CEO of the Robert Stigwood Organization. He was also Andrew Lloyd-Webber's publicist.

Bizarrely, in 2015 British monarch Queen Elizabeth II appointed Brown CBE, an honor a few levels below a knighthood intended to reward U.K. civilians for community accomplishment and achievement.

Holtzman has some impressive credentials on his résumé. He was FEMA’s media liaison after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and served as director of public affairs for think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations.

He subsequently joined Weber Shandwick and won PRWeek’s PR Professional of the Year in 2002, in part for helping manage Beijing’s successful campaign to host the 2008 Olympics. Following this success, later that year the ambitious Holtzman moved to BLJ and his career seemingly moved in a different direction.

According to a lawyer for BLJ London, the firm separated from its U.S. counterparts in 2010. Its former New York office is now called BLJ Worldwide, while its former headquarters is called BLJ London. Neither firm is a member of their respective trade bodies: the PRCA in the U.K. and the PR Council in the U.S.

But I distinctly remember Peter Brown calling me on December 2, 2010 to pitch a story about the firm’s work on the victorious Qatar bid, which he followed up with an email under the Brown Lloyd James email address and banner. This despite BLJ London claiming in the Times piece that the agency was "undergoing a demerger with the U.S. office at the time and had no knowledge of the work for the Qatar bid," and paperwork filed with Companies House in the U.K. appears to back up this claim.

Several calls to and messages left at BLJ Worldwide this week by PRWeek reporters seeking clarification about the above reports and events were not returned. One of our team visited the agency’s office on Broadway in New York City to further seek comment and was escorted out of the building. At the time of writing, the company's website is down. Our U.K. counterparts also attempted to contact BLJ London, with a similar lack of response.

In the interests of balance and full transparency, I would love to engage the principals of the firm(s) in a dialogue about their work and justification for representing certain clients and the methods they deploy to achieve their aims. There remains an open invitation on behalf of PRWeek to do so, and an open invitation for them to rebut the allegations made in the piece in The Sunday Times.

But, without such rebuttal, one can only take the Times’ evidence at face value. And the wider question this episode raises is what the PR industry can do to stop its overall reputation being brought into disrepute by bad actors.

Unlike in the case of Bell Pottinger last year, BLJ is not a member of its relevant industry bodies, so it cannot be held to account in that way.

When contacted about the issue by PRWeek U.K., Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA in the U.K. and CEO of umbrella trade group ICCO, said: "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 behavior 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."

For his part, Richard Edelman says: "The industry should take a stand and condemn such practices."

I agree. But, beyond this, I’m not sure there is anything else concrete that can be done to alleviate the negative connotations from such exposés impacting the whole industry – and that is very much to be regretted.

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