The probity of its business dealings over the £40bn Al-Yamama deal to sell arms to the Saudis is in question – and the integrity of successive British governments, which sanctioned the deal, has been called into question, too.
To assuage the media storm, the PR offensive focuses on reviews and the appointment of a distinguished retired judge to act as ethics watchdog on any future dealings by the company. These are, of course, classic pages from the PR industry’s manuals on crisis management and CSR.
Yet surely there is a case for a more aggressive approach with PR addressing the populist jugular instead of the faux righteousness of the media? Simply, the vast majority of Britons do not greatly care which particular Arab received money as long as the deal and the revenues, jobs and influence it brought came to the UK rather than, say, the USA, China or France.
The story is typical of a certain media agenda which finds little resonance in how most UK voters feel. It is instructive that the story broke on the BBC’s Panorama. Since the show was revamped, every sensationalist ‘revelation’ has been plugged across the BBC’s plethora of news bulletins, discussion programmes and phone-ins. Like other Panorama scoops, including one that England cricket coach Bob Woolmer was murdered (he wasn’t), and the revelations about soccer bungs which failed to show a single bung, the Al-Yamama arms deal story was a shoo-in at the top of the BBC’s influential news agenda.
Of course, it is worthy of comment and discussion and it is not without interest. The PR counter-offensive should now be including vigorous references to the benefits of the deal for the UK and the cut-throat competition against which it was secured. It could, also, make great play of the fact that there is no suggestion of wrong-doing in terms of receiving any untoward payments by anyone on the British side of the deal. Had that been the case that would quite rightly have been viewed as a scandal.
The BAE and Westminster spinmeisters are concentrating their efforts on focusing on how things have changed for the future. Instead, they should aggressively be turning the tide of minority media opinion which seems to relish the sight of UK plc beating itself up at every turn. Every review and watchdog announced is a sop to that media opinion and flies in the face of popular attitudes.
Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.