On the 5th December 2011 a video emerged from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showing Bell Pottinger Group offering reputation management to the despotic regime of Uzbekistan. Countless human rights groups protest due to the country’s use of child labour, torture and media control. Dozens of journalists and activists are systematically tortured in the country’s jails each day. Leader, Islam Karimov, keeps oppression fresh by tolerating no opposition.
Bureau journalists contacted the Bell Pottinger posing as members of Azimov Group stating that the government of Uzbekistan was committed to real change would like to promote good relations with the UK. Bell Pottinger, feeling that this tyranny could do with a spot of reputation management, accepted to meet.
Managing Director of Bell Pottinger public affairs, David Wilson, checked after the first meeting that the Uzbekistan government was indeed willing to change their approaches which included child labour, human rights and democracy. The fake Azimov Group agreed.
The key arguments that Bell Pottinger Group will drive for the Uzbekistan presentation (as can be viewed here) are:
- Uzbekistan is changing. A strong programme of reform is correcting past problems.
- Uzbekistan is important. Its co-operation with the West has greatly helped US and UK forces in Afghanistan.
- Uzbekistan can be an excellent trading partner. Its exports are valued and valuable. Its people are becoming more prosperous. The UK should not allow others to get ahead of it in trade with Uzbekistan.
Their Digital PR recommendations were:
- Drown out negative content
- Push our messaging to the top of global search engines
- Direct journalists and internet users to key websites and content
- Shape the online conversation and debate regarding Uzbenistan’s cotton trade and issues concerning child labour and help to redress the balance in reporting.
I have to reiterate that David Wilson had only agreed to any of this only if the Uzbekistan government was willing to
change. As an expert in public affairs it is rather unusual how David Wilson had not noticed the long history of Uzbekistan not allowing reporters to observe their progress (let alone the jail sentences and torture).
During meetings Bell Pottinger’s close relationship with PM, David Cameron, became apparent. Yet a quick statement by Cameron’s spokesperson denied that lobbying companies influence the government. Clearly not the case, as it did become apparent that Bell Pottinger’s past client, Dyson, had caused the PM to discuss copyright issues with the Chinese PM. Whilst it is true that business matters would be discussed when considering the running of states, it seems unlikely that such a discussion would have materialised from luck.
Bell Pottinger Group were not to Blame
Despite the evidence brought forward from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism I do not believe Bell Pottinger is to blame from the criticisms brought forward by the media since. It strikes unfair how suddenly journalists became outraged by the lobbying industry when their own influence is dubious. I concede that the management exampled by Bell Pottinger on this occasion was not righteous – in places it seemed ignorant considering the extensive history of Uzbekistan.
Instead the investigation raised more questions surrounding the integrity of the lobbying industry, occasionally referred to as ‘the dark arts’. Anybody with an inclination towards politics will know the influence of businesses and states when decision making is in progress. Why shouldn’t lobbyists be transparent and argue for the concerns of the client?
The key point of this investigation was when the bureau said the government of Uzbekistan was seeking real change. Only once this has been announced was the rest of the investigation possible but it was based upon a lie told by journalists. Yes, it provided transparency but under the wrong circumstances. If the Bureau had announced that Uzbeckistan was not seeking changes then I believe Bell Pottinger would have dropped proceedings with pitching the campaign.
Broader education is required publically of the lobbying industry. It starts with providing proper regulation of the industry in the UK. In America a measure of statuary transparency exists which requires companies to disclose client contracts and announce their contact with politicians. A requirement such as this may be the right path to take to ensure integrity remains at the centre of this, at times, questionable industry.