In two separate articles published today, the Guardian boils down why London has become the “world capital of reputation laundering” for regime governments:
“If you are managing a client’s reputation, whether individual, company or country, it is the Anglo-Saxon media that matters and particularly the London-based media,” said Ivo Gabara, who advises the Kazakhstan foreign ministry on press relations in London. “Coverage in the US is important but what is said out of London will determine your global reputation.”
Work ranges from damage control for leaders, to more innocuous travel PR. Portland PR, Hill & Knowlton, Marston Nicholson, Morris International, and Chime plc and its Bell Pottinger division are all named as having lucrative contracts with governments including Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Kazakhstan, Zambia, and Sri Lanka. All have poor human rights track records. According to the piece, Omar Bashir, the president of Sudan, approached two London firms to repair his image. No takers are mentioned.
Chime/Bell Pottinger is the biggest player in the space, and is also the most unapologetic, with chairman Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser, providing a quote in each article:
“I am not an international ethics body,” said Lord Bell. “We do communications work. If people want to communicate their argument we take the view that they are allowed to do so.”
“I wouldn’t do anything I would do a bad job on,” he said. “It is about the direction of travel. I don’t choose to sit in judgment on whether they are going fast enough. If the direction of travel is right then I am perfectly happy to help them.”
Bell’s firm earns half of its 67 million pounds revenue from foreign contracts, up from 37% in 2008.
“It is almost like a con. You can’t spray perfume on a turd. It will smell nice for a while, but eventually it will smell like what it is,” said one anonymous source who has worked with foreign governments.