PR agencies bow to US concerns

With Middle Eastern news channel Al Jazeera trawling for PR support, Tom Williams asks how top agencies decide on whether to pitch for controversial business

When Nigel Parsons, the Doha-based MD of Al Jazeera International, wanted to promote the English-language version of controversial Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, one could have expected most global PR agencies to be champing at the bit.

Al Jazeera International’s decision to tender for a PR agency (PRWeek, 21 January) is ostensibly a standard, even fascinating, attempt by an established regional brand to shake off negative perceptions and reach out to the world.

For any other similar brief you could imagine agencies convening strategic pitch meetings and PROs licking their lips at the prospect of being the people to bring the station’s quality newsgathering to the world’s attention.

But Al Jazeera is not any other brand. Despite Parsons’ explanation that Al Jazeera International is ‘a standalone operation’ from the parent news station, which US president George W Bush notoriously, and unfairly, labelled the ‘mouthpiece’ of Osama bin Laden, the new offshoot is tarnished with the misperception that its group is a propaganda machine for terrorists and nurtures hatred of the US.

US backlash

At least four global agencies – Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, Weber Shandwick and Ketchum – declined to pitch for the business.

While those that will comment give different reasons for their decision, an indication of the PR challenge facing Parsons, in the US especially, is that a PA taking a message at Ketchum’s New York office may only recognise the Al Jazeera name when it is connected with the phrase ‘Osama bin Laden’ rather than ‘Arabic/Middle Eastern news channel’.

One PRO at an agency that declined the brief says the decision not to pitch almost certainly came down to a keen awareness of this perception in the US.

‘If you look at the agencies concerned, all of them have significant public affairs involvement in the US. The last thing they want to do is hack off their Washington interests with a relationship with an organisation that has questionable links to what is going on in the Middle East. Working for Al Jazeera would not be a smart move,’ says the PRO.

WS chief executive Colin Byrne admits he considered this when turning down the Al Jazeera brief but points out that his firm has, in any case, a policy of not working for a major news network in order to be seen as remaining fair and impartial by the major media networks.

Parsons, for his part, appears to be genuinely miffed at the response to the pitch he is overseeing.

‘We are disappointed but we have to respect their decision not to pitch,’ he says. ‘People who don’t understand Al Jazeera and its content are often quick to criticise. I would hope PR agencies see this as a challenge – after all, isn’t that what they are supposed to relish?’

So, how do agencies decide which controversial clients to pitch for?

While many global PR agencies talk about a consultative process when deciding whether to go for a potentially controversial brief, it is clear that the decision will usually pass quickly out of the hands of business development managers and practice heads on the front line to regional and global senior management, who have to assess the brief’s possible impact on the agency’s own reputation.

In some cases, such as at Chime Communications, the process is even more centralised – chairman Lord Bell takes most of such decisions himself. At other agencies, though, the process appears to be fully democratic.

At GCI, UK chief executive Adrian Wheeler holds votes among all staff on whether to work for controversial clients – a policy that has resulted in staff rejecting contracts ranging from promoting a tabloid newspaper to a brief from the Canadian agriculture and fisheries ministry to promote its seal-culling policy.

Agency reputations

Ketchum, WS and H&K screen out tobacco companies; Ketchum London chief executive David Gallagher says the agency will also not work for arms firms or anyone on either side of the abortion debate.

For Gallagher, who makes all these decisions in the UK, the questions to ask are ‘is it something our people can get behind?’ and ‘is it something our other clients might have a problem with?’.

H&K UK head of corporate affairs Andrew Pharoah, whose firm was approached in 2001 to promote the anti-US theocracy of Iran (it declined to pitch), says agencies are ‘guns for hire’ that are likely to consider any brief going. But he adds that a balance needs to be struck with how accepting the brief will affect the agency’s reputation.

Edelman European president and CEO David Brain recalls a pitch just over a year ago for a brief to woo investment to Libya, whose regime is connected with the 1988 bombing of a US jet over Lockerbie.

Brain says the decision to pitch was justified because ‘we suspected that Libya was going to come back into the fold’. Libya’s rehabilitation began the following year.

Perhaps, as Bell suggests, there is something rather holier-than-thou in the image of senior PROs wrestling with their conscience late into the night. ‘Despite what people will tell you, none of us wants to turn business down,’ he asserts.

Byrne, meanwhile, adds: ‘If [as an agency] you were too pure [when deciding who to work for], you would end up working for virtually nobody.’

Deciding whether to take on a brief to promote controversial clients is a decision PR firms will always have to make. But it is the ultimate irony that, as in the case of Al Jazeera, it is – for the agencies – the potential damage to their own reputation that takes priority. Over and above the stimulating challenges facing the potential client.

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