Britain is gaining a name as the place despotic regimes go for reputation management. A lack of regulation and no requirements for transparency mean PR companies can represent the most repressive governments under the cloak of secrecy.
In the US there is a measure of statutory transparency: lobbyists working for foreign governments have to publicly disclose their client contracts and state when and why they’ve been in contact with politicians and the media.
In the UK, there’s no such obligation.
Working for repressive regimes
The UK Public Affairs Council offers a voluntary register, but many firms do not appear on it at all, and many of those that do post incomplete lists of clients. This is perhaps why the governments of countries including Kazakhstan, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda have all turned to leading UK PR agencies.
But what do British PR firms offer to do for these foreign governments? What scrutiny, if any, do they apply to potential clients? And how do they conduct their campaigns for regimes whose images are so heavily tarnished?
Four years ago, US investigative journalist Ken Silverstein, acting in the public interest, approached some of Washington’s top lobbyists posing as an agent for the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan. He exposed how the firms vied for the right to remake the dictator’s image, promising access to members of Congress and positive media coverage.
The Bureau felt a similar operation in the UK would be equally revealing, and more importantly would demonstrate the need for a statutory register. To this end reporters from the Bureau posed as clients from a country bordering Turkmenistan and just as concerning: Uzbekistan.
The Worst of the Worst
In March 2011, Uzbekistan expelled Human Rights Watch. The US think-tank Freedom House included it in the ‘Worst of the Worst‘ list of repressive regimes in 2011. A number of years earlier, the regime had gained a reputation after allegedly boiling a religious prisoner to death, and is frequently accused of torturing people to obtain confessions.
The Bureau set up a fictional organisation – the ‘Azimov Group’. We described the organisation as a team of British and eastern European investors, with close links to the Uzbekistan government concerned with exporting cotton textiles. To support our cover story, we set up a website, which listed a London address, mobile number and email address.
Uzbekistan’s cotton is the subject of an international boycott by several clothing manufacturers because the country still allegedly uses forced labour, including child labour, in its harvest.
The Bureau felt it was in the public interest to know exactly what a PR firm representing such clients does to improve their image.
Bureau journalists wrote to the firm posing as members of the ‘Azimov Group. We claimed to have been appointed to promote good relations between the government of Uzbekistan and the UK. The letter stated that the country was committed to reform.
Delighted to talk
Bell Pottinger chief executive Paul Bell replied within hours: the firm ‘would be delighted to talk to you about how we might best support your enterprise’, he said. A number of other companies the Bureau approached either did not reply to our email, or refused to meet us on the grounds that it was an unethical tender.
During two meetings that were secretly recorded in June and July 2011, Bureau journalists talked with Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations and Sir David Richmond, who works for the firm’s ‘strategic communications and geopolitical specialist’ arm, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières.
Neither Collins, Wilson or Richmond expressed to us any doubts about taking on a client tasked with promoting relations with Uzbekistan, despite its dire public image, though they did stress a need for genuine commitment to change.
After the first meeting, David Wilson emailed asking to ‘recheck that the government of Uzbekistan is indeed committed to a reform agenda on various policies including child labour, human rights and democracy, all of which will be vital components in us being able to deliver a successful campaign’.
The Azimov Group pointed to government working groups and agreements not to use child labour. Our reply did not mention the widely reported fact that Uzbekistan has refused to allow international inspectors into the country to verify its claims of progress.
We also said the Uzbek government had set up a commission to reform laws on freedom of speech, and directed the firm to the Uzbek embassy’s website.
Mr Wilson said the response was ‘nicely reassuring’. A few days before the Uzbek president’s daughter Lola Karimova had lost a libel action in a French court over an article describing her as the child of a dictator.
The firm prepared a presentation entitled ‘Changing Perceptions of the Republic of Uzbekistan’ outlining a ‘communications and media strategy’ and a ‘public affairs programme focusing on key members of the government and influential opinion formers’ as well as the EU.
In late September, two months after the Azimov Group’s last contact with the firm, Mr Wilson emailed asking ‘has the opportunity now passed us by’. He attached an Evening Standard feature on the ejection of the Uzbek president’s daughter Gulnara from New York Fashion Week.
The Bureau approached 10 London PR firms. Two – Morris International Associates and Ogilvy PR – declined to pitch for the business, several others never replied, while five including Bell Pottinger appeared to be prepared to accept the fictitious account.
The full results of our investigation and revelations from meetings with other firms will be published later this month.