U.K. lobbying firm Bell Pottinger is coming under fire for comments staffers made on a video gathered by journalists posing as reps from the government of Uzbekistan.
Reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism posed as the reps to capture the execs talking up their relationships with government officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron, discussing how they use “dark arts” like fake blogs to bury stories online, and the work they’ve done with other countries like Sri Lanka that have been charged with human rights violations. Uzbekistan has a reputation for child labor and other human rights violations as well.
Since the story came to light, the firm has also become embroiled with the phone hacking scandal with news that Bell Pottinger advised Rebekah Brooks on which police station she should go to for questioning, suggesting she avoid those that give too much access to the media.
You can watch the video here.
The firm does say that Uzbekistan needs to enact reforms in order to see change in its reputation, but nevertheless says they could work for the government at a rate of £100,000-per-month.
The PRSA sent us a comment that highlights the ways in which the “services” described on the tape violate its code.
“Concerning the use of ‘dark arts’ tactics in online reputation management and astroturfing, PRSA’s Code of Ethics states that public relations professionals should strive to ‘serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent,” Keith Trivitt, associate director of the PRSA told us in an email.
Besides being unethical, Trivitt points out that astroturfing is illegal, according to the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices, and runs afoul of the FTC here.
As with the Libya RFP back in August, this is simply a job that no PR firm should be willing to accept. Trivitt notes that Bell Pottinger’s Lord Bell has been known to say that “every client has a legitimate right to tell their story.” We’ve also heard others talk about how it’s not the business of others to determine where firms draw the line on what sorts of clients to work with.
If you are OK with working for a client that is OK with child labor, if you brag about how effectively corrupt your firm can be, and if one of your services is making slimy people look less slimy, you are horrible. Moreover, it is our business because that’s the crap you’re serving all of us through your campaigns and your media outreach.
*Update: The BBC is reporting that Wikipedia has suspended a number of accounts tied to Bell Pottinger because of alleged edits made by the firm that represent a conflict of interest. The firm says its doing an investigation of its own.
“In general when I speak to PR firms they have ethical guidelines that would prevent this kind of conduct,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.