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In what could either be the worst case of getting caught out sharing secrets with people you haven’t known long enough to trust, or of schoolboy-level boasting (which will probably be what it’s positioned as), Bell Pottinger is in some serious deep water.
The front page of today’s Independent shows executives from the lobbying and PR agency telling agents from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (posing as members of the fake Azimov Group, with interests in the Uzbekistan Government), about its access to the heart of British politics.
The executives say that the agency's "magical" digital reputation management team use “dark arts” to bury bad coverage (known as ‘the search industry’ to the rest of the world) and influence the public.
The Independent highlights the cacophony of troublesome promises made by Bell Pottinger (which you can read in full here) including the fact that the agency could get the Prime Minister “to pick up the phone in 24 hours”.
And that Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, recommended a meeting with Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer at The Times and a former senior Tory party adviser, who is close to Cameron.
He will sit down and have lunch with just about anybody, That doesn’t mean he’s going to agree with them, but occasionally something out of that lunch will get dropped into a future column."
Finkelstein has been fighting fires all of the morning on Twitter, saying that "the remarks are utterly untrue and bizarre."
It's bad timing indeed for Bell Pottinger, since Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was quizzed in the Commons after he was revealed to have had dinner at The Savoy, which was paid for by Bell Pottinger, which he failed to disclose.
For those familiar with the PR industry, the only eyebrow-raising issue here is the foolishness with which Bell Pottinger’s executives would freely share such information. To the public, perhaps it's more shocking to imagine that a lobbyist could be quite so ‘in bed’ with the people that run our country.
Personally, I’m in agreement with Dan Fox over on Loose Red that what’s most surprising about this debacle is that Bell Pottinger fell for it.
Yes, the use of the phrase ‘dark arts’ might have suggested that those in the Indy’s video might not have been the most au fait with modern search practices or reputation management.
But for them to buy into The Azimov Group being so closely tied to such a government, and being so full of ‘investors’, then thinking it was normal to have absolutely no digital footprint?
With such a controversial partnership apparently in place, there are human rights bloggers, investigative press and even members of the public who would have at least had something to say. Surely?
Let's look at this recent Wikipedia entry, on the Bell Pottinger page:
How long do you think it will take for the team to "sort" out such negative coverage of its own brand?
All things said, with this news making the front page we’re left with another dent in the reputation of the PR industry by proxy. Not just because Bell Pottinger has been buttering up members of an organisation that aims to protect a government so well-known for human rights crimes, but also for the fact that it promises to be able to do things it obviously knows nothing about.