Why we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back over the Bell Pottinger saga

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Bell Pottinger has fallen from grace due to its work with the Gupta family, but there are many other instances of ethically dubious work being done by PR practitioners and agencies.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, with no cellphone connection and no newspaper rounds, there’s only one topic of conversation today in the PR industry. That is the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association for its work with the South Africa-based Gupta family. The agency was found to be promoting racial divisions through fake social media accounts in order to divert attention away from their client’s government connections and accusations of improper acquisition of wealth. Here’s a brief background, from the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Bell Pottinger, one of the City’s leading public relations agencies, has been expelled from the industry’s trade association after an investigation found its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to be the worst breach of ethics in its history.

The Public Relations and Communications Association said Bell Pottinger was unethical and unprofessional, had brought the industry into disrepute and has banned the firm from its membership for at least five years.

The punishment, unprecedented for a firm of Bell Pottinger’s size, was handed down after the PRCA investigated a complaint from South Africa’s main opposition party that the PR firm sought to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger was being paid £100,000 a month by client Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Gupta family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their close links to the South African president, Jacob Zuma. Both have previously denied such a relationship.

The PRCA decision to investigate and then expel Bell Pottinger was announced following a complaint by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, about Bell Pottinger’s work.

There’s been a chorus of voices congratulating the PRCA for this decision (could they have taken any other route?), and insisting that the industry should follow more rigorous ethical guidelines.

What concerns me is 1) how any agency would have taken on a brief to harm others on behalf of a client, 2) why any body would need a complaint to be made to take action when the information was in the public domain (the story broke in Spring of this year, and we’re now into September), and 3) why is this particular case being highlighted when there’s a myriad of other client-agency relationships which should be under the spotlight.

Let me spell out some of the ethically-dubious issues that are there for all to see. We have the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is issuing grand jury subpoenas seeking testimony from public relations executives who worked on an international campaign organized by former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort as part of his investigation into the alleged Russian interference in US elections, a whole raft of PR agencies and lobby groups working for governments with poor to nil human rights (a recent example is APCO and the Egyptian government), and agencies working with firms who impact public health. Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell has an interesting CV; he’s worked with the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.

The industry has historically had a reputation for spinning. The father of PR, Edward Bernays, was long associated with the tobacco industry. Anyone who has worked in the industry in the region will know of the role that Hill & Knowlton played in pushing the United States into the first Gulf War through the use of a fictional story about dying babies. More recently we’ve seen agencies use fake digital and social media accounts to discredit groups, corporations or countries on behalf of clients. I could go on…

We have to face up to the fact that the PR industry has an ethics problem. There are far too many agencies who will take the business if the cheque has enough zeros. For an industry that trades in reputation above all, we have to take a far stricter stance on ethics, at least at an agency level. While I applaud the PRCA for what it has done, this is only scratching the surface. We shouldn’t start patting ourselves on the back when the job to clean up the industry has only just begun.

 

The pride of the Gulf: Kuwaitis and their determination to realize their civil rights

Kuwait has seen unprecedented levels of demonstrations over the past month

Kuwait isn’t a place one would naturally associate with freedom and democracy. The country and its nationals are often derided by other Gulf Arabs for a number of reasons (if you live in the Gulf you’ll understand what I’m talking about here).

When it comes to participation in government, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Gulf could learn a great deal from Kuwait. The country has always had, by GCC standards, a vibrant and active political scene. Kuwait’s Constitution guarantees democratic representation by virtue of Article 6, Part 1 which states that “the System of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers.”

When talking about civil protests in the Gulf area a common refrain has been to ask “why are there any protests at all?” The perception is that Gulf Arabs have money, and that they are looked after and provided with all that they may need by their respective governments. This may be true in some cases, but it misses the point entirely. Kuwaitis are demanding more say in their government and how the country is ruled.

The challenges in Kuwait are best summed up by Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak in his article for the Guardian newspaper. You can read the article here, but I will also quote from it below.

We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.

On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.

I for one am proud of the Kuwaiti people for standing up for what they believe to be their rights and against the actions of Kuwait’s ruler. They’ve shown bravery, determination, and a belief in themselves despite the very real risks to themselves. Kuwait’s people, both men and women, clearly believe in themselves and their ability to take the country forward. Kuwaitis have proved that they are prepared to risk a great deal for the right to govern themselves and fight corruption.

In his article for the Guardian Al-Barrak writes that in the end the people of Kuwait will be triumphant. I would hope that any victory for democratic participation in Kuwait would be felt by others across the Gulf. Will we one day look back to Kuwait in 2012 and say this is where the Gulf’s Arab Spring began? Today Kuwait and its people should be seen as the pride of the Gulf.

While the country does seem to be going through an unprecedented crisis, I do also feel that the Emir of Kuwait should be recognized to an extent for allowing protests (or at the very least, not cracking down in the same/similar manner to his GCC neighbours). Maybe I’m wrong on this, but Kuwait would seem to be the one country in the Gulf which allows for its nationals to protest openly. While I have read about and been told of attempts to use force and arrests to dispel protestors I certainly couldn’t imagine these scenes being repeated in any other city in the Gulf as of today.

For more on what is happening in Kuwait watch the below report from Al Jazeera’s English channel which makes for fascinating viewing.