The Public Relations Consultants Association has cleared Bell Pottinger of breaching its Code of Practice, following a complaint from lobbyist Mark Adams of Standup4Lobbying. The complaint related to the Bureau’s undercover investigation into Bell Pottinger’s representation of regimes with poor human rights records.
The conclusion – which was reached without communicating with the Bureau – effectively clears the firm of exaggerating its links to Cabinet ministers and of exerting improper influence over government.
Code of Practice
Political consultants must not ‘propose or undertake any action which would constitute an improper influence on organs of government, or on legislation or on the media of communication,’ says the Code. And they ‘must not make misleading, exaggerated or extravagant claims or otherwise misrepresent the nature or extent of their access to institutions of government or to political parties or to persons in those institutions.’
The firm’s boasts about its ability to ‘get the message across’ to members of the Cabinet including George Osborne and William Hague have been well aired, most recently on BBC Newsnight.
During an undercover meeting Bell Pottinger’s David Wilson also said he could help arrange a meeting between the Uzek president and David Cameron.
“It would need to happen via the ambassador into the government,’ he said. ‘We can facilitate that and make sure it goes into the right channels, that the right answers are already being given before the request comes through.’
It’s unclear whether Wilson exaggerating his ability to arrange the meeting or was really able to pull strings to make it happen. Either way, the Code would appear to have been broken.
During the second undercover meeting, Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, described at length how the firm persuaded David Cameron to complain about Chinese rip-offs of Dyson Airblade fans to the Chinese premier within a few hours of Dyson asking Bell Pottinger to act. ‘On the Saturday David Cameron raised it with the Chinese prime minister and showed him the photos of the products,’ Collins said.
A Number 10 spokesman told the BBC this was a ‘gross exaggeration’ and that Bell Pottinger had ‘totally misrepresented’ its relationship with Downing Street.
Amongst the MPs Collins boasted he knew was Cumbrian MP Rory Stewart. Stewart claims he’s only met Collins once.
During the meeting Collins also discussed how the firm deals with the media.
“There are a lot of people in Parliament who can’t stand Channel 4 and can’t stand Dispatches,’ he said. ‘So if there are any inaccuracies even if they’re fairly minor you can work with some people who have a track record of not liking Channel 4, wanting to score points against Channel 4 and say here is another instance of Channel 4 overreaching themselves and putting out stuff they haven’t properly checked.’
And here’s Wilson talking about how to head off a negative story: ‘You need statistics – you baffle people with statistics and people love statistics so you say then in 80% of the country these reforms are already in place, we are still working through the last twenty per cent, whatever the statistics might be.’
The PRCA’s Code of Practice also says that in making representations to government, consultants must ‘be open in disclosing the identity of their employers and must not misrepresent their interests’.
David Wilson said on camera: ‘In our work for Belarus nobody knows who pays us.’
The PRCA never spoke to the Bureau before reaching its conclusions – only Bell Pottinger – so we don’t know whether these examples were taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, the Independent newspaper describes how Bell Pottinger’s representative in Brussels, Daniel Hamilton, has been planning to ‘hijack’ an initiative to give ordinary people a voice in Europe.
The PRCA Code says its members have a duty to maintain the highest standards when practising public relations. Are these the highest standards?