Is the Lobbying-for-Dictators Scandal Overstated?

A look at the actual pitch the British lobbying firm sent to the BIJ reporters disguised as Uzbek agents

foust dec8 p2.jpg
Uzbek refugees sit by their tents as others pass by in a camp in the Kyrgyz territory near the village of Barash / Reuters

The public revulsion to Bell Pottinger's lobbying activities is continuing, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports new stories about the PR firm caught pitching its services to BIJ reporters posing as representatives of Uzbekistan's less-than-humane government. But it's worthwhile to take a few steps back and see what "damage" Bell Pottinger really did.

First, let's take a look at the pitch the Bell Pottinger executives gave to the BIJ reporters posing as agents of Uzbekistan.

The key bullets:

The only way to turn around those perceptions [of Uzbekistan's horrific human rights record] is to convince our target audiences that genuine and substantial change is underway in Uzbekistan.

Selling the status quo, or pretending things are changing when they are not, will not work. Worse, it would be counter-productive.

If, however, the government is committed to real and lasting reform, then there are many things Bell Pottinger could do to ensure that such a programme was understood, appreciated and supported in the UK and the EU.

This does not look like the craven attempt to "whitewash" Uzbekistan's reputation that BIJ and the Independent allege. Bell Pottinger is placing nearly the exact same preconditions on working with Uzbekistan that a coalition of 20 human rights organizations demanded (pdf) the U.S. government use when re-engaging with the regime. Bell Pottinger, it seems, is refusing to engage in PR activities until reforms take place.

As for the toolkit Bell Pottinger says it will employ in the service of its clients, most of that seemed to be copy-pasted. The BIJ posted a followup story condemning the PR firm for altering Wikipedia pages to benefit its clients (the firm did not do so for Uzbekistan). In a coordinated story, The Independent quotes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales condemning Bell Pottinger's edits as "unethical."

But is editing Wikipedia to benefit oneself really unethical or even new? The BIJ exposé does not record any Bell Pottinger employees trying to add false information to Wikipedia entries, rather emphasizing the good about their clients and de-emphasizing the bad. If that is unethical, then so is much of the practice of public relations (granted, many people seem to think that is so).

Four years ago, a Wired story found that many people and institutions that are the subjects of Wikipedia articles will try to alter those entries to make them more favorable. These included Congressmen and their staffs, the CIA, Microsoft, Diebold, and Wal-Mart.

The Bureau's reporting is having real consequences. An MP in Parliament is trying to set up a registry of lobbyists, despite worries it would hobble commercial lobbying while promoting labor lobbying (one of the many consequences of regulating lobbying I mentioned in my last post). And Bell Pottinger's shares have dropped in price following Lord Bell's decision to investigate the scandal, affecting the entire company.

Despite the outrage over this story, Bell Pottinger said up front, explicitly, that they cannot and will not lie on behalf of Uzbekistan and that they can only help promote actual, real reforms on the part of the government. Is that really a scandal?

That being said, the BIJ's effort to promote transparency in lobbying, especially regarding the financial interests at stake in pushing certain narratives into the media, is a laudable and important goal. People deserve to know the agendas behind the information they're fed -- whether from a bad client like Uzbekistan or a good client like a human rights foundation. But their story here seems to overstate the scandal in ways might turn people off and risk making the whole concept appear exaggerated and overhyped.