A public relations firm which became notorious for assisting dodgy regimes – including several in the Middle East – has finally got its comeuppance.
London-based Bell Pottinger has been expelled from the PRCA (the trade body for "respectable" PR firms) for bringing the industry into disrepute. Its chief executive has resigned and there are doubts as to whether it can stay in business.
Announcing its decision, the PRCA said it was imposing "the harshest possible sanctions" on Bell Pottinger. "The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour", it said.
The cause of the firm's downfall was "offensive and inappropriate" campaigning activity in South Africa which, in the words of the PRCA was "likely to inflame racial discord ... and appears to have done exactly that". (An article in the New Statesman explains the background.)
Founded in 1987 by Tim (now Lord) Bell who had previously been spin doctor to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Bell Pottinger was once described as having the most controversial client list of any PR firm in Britain. Among those it assisted with their image problems were Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian president, and the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
In 2011 a Bell Pottinger executive was secretly filmed boasting that the firm used "all sorts of dark arts" for managing reputations online. One of its shady practices involved tampering with Wikipedia entries relating to its clients – removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin.
Since 2009, Bell Pottinger has had a series of lucrative contracts with Bahrain's repressive regime aimed at polishing up its image. However, its Bahrain-related activities – which included placing favourable articles in the media and lobbying western governments – attracted criticism, even from some who supported the regime.
In 2013 the pro-government Gulf Daily News published an extraordinary attack on "PR mercenaries", arguing that Bell Pottinger and other firms had "milked the country's financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result".
In 2011, as Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule in Yemen was coming to an end, Bell Pottinger got a contract from a mysterious body called the National Awareness Organisation – headed by president's nephew, Colonel Tareq Saleh, who was also in charge of the presidential guard.
The exact purpose of the contract was unclear but the Guardian reported that its goal appeared to be "in line with a proposal by the Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down in return immunity from prosecution".
Lord Bell, the firm's chairman at the time, told the Guardian the aim was "to assist the [Yemeni] government through negotiations and within the Yemeni constitution to achieve a peaceful transition to a new government". He denied reports that the firm had been involved in organising televised appearances by President Saleh, or that it was involved in helping to arrange pro-government demonstrations.
Bell Pottinger also subcontracted an American firm, Qorvis, to carry out "media outreach" in the US on behalf of the National Awareness Organisation, for a fee of $30,000 a month.
Under what seems to have been a separate arrangement, Bell Pottinger promoted an international Arab football tournament that was hosted in Yemen.
In 2006 Asma al-Assad, the Syrian president's wife, approached Bell Pottinger for help in creating a more open and westernised image for Syria and its ruling family. Lord Bell told the New York Times she contacted the firm after several first ladies, including Laura Bush, began to hold annual meetings and conferences. “She wanted to be a part of that club,” he said.
The New York Times continued:
Bell Pottinger did not set up interviews for Mrs Assad directly, but advised her on how to set up a communications office in Damascus to help shape her image.
A few years later, positive articles began to appear. Paris Match called Mrs. Assad an “element of light in a country full of shadow zones” and the “eastern Diana.” French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics, and in 2009, The Huffington Post published an article and fashion slide show titled “Asma al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty.”
“She responded beautifully, because she speaks well and is beautiful,” said the Italian writer Gaia Servadio, who worked for Mrs. Assad in Damascus. She added that Mrs Assad hoped the coverage would deflect some of the negative attention her country had received.
A different PR firm was involved in the embarrassing "Rose in the desert" profile of Mrs Assad which Vogue magazine published – and then hastily unpublished – in 2011.
Last year the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Bell Pottinger had been paid more than $500 million dollars by the United States for "dark arts" work in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
This included "information operations and psychological operations" which went "far beyond standard communications work", the bureau reported.
One of Bell Pottinger's activities was to compile fake al-Qaeda propaganda videos. These were transferred to specially-programmed CDs which American troops casually dropped during their patrols. Code embedded in the CDs gave the Americans the IP address of any computer that was used to play them.
In 2011, shortly after the uprising against the Gadafi regime began, Mohammed El-Senussi, the self-styled Crown Prince of Libya, hired Bell Pottinger to help "arrange humanitarian aid", assist with a tour to meet Libyan groups and – some suspected – to improve his chances of succeeding to the throne.
Other Middle East clients
Other notable Middle East clients of Bell Pottinger have included Qatar Airways, the Emirates airline and the Egyptian government during the Mubarak era. The firm currently has wholly-owned Middle East offices in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Dubai.