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.

Vikki Chowney

Published 6 December, 2011 by Vikki Chowney

Vikki is head of community at TMW. You can follow her on Twitter or Google+

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Comments (4)


Chris Norton

Nice post Vicky - I agree it's very shocking that they fell for it. The price shocked me too £1Million is a lot of money. Let's hope they take this as a big learning as they have been trending on Twitter all morning.

over 6 years ago

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith, Director at eschermanSmall Business

Aside from the ethics of it all, it also is a great example of why PR firms don't understand SEO (or at least people within PR firms make claims for SEO that cannot be fulfilled).

Among the "magical" digital techniques discussed in The Indy piece appears to be creating fake blogs and comment spam. It also makes no reference to the search volume for the terms they were claiming to manipulate (what's the point in rigging a search result when no one is looking for it in the first place?).

And not that I would condone it, but there are tools out there costing £100 a month that allow you to automate the process of fake blog creation and "spinning" content with a view to trying to fool Google. The client could do it themselves for a lot less than £100K per month. Not that it would work mind.

On another matter: We don’t know which particular keyword terms Bell Pottinger were claiming to manipulate results for. According to the paper: “The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company.”

It doesn’t take much to work out that the employee concerned was called “Muhammad Sulayman Barre”. Try searching on that name in Google and see what results you get.

Or try searching on “Dahabshiil employee guantanamo”.

Is that a managed online reputation?

over 6 years ago


Anthony Devenish

Great analysis Vikki.

As PR practitioners, there will always be strategies and tactics we discuss with clients, that we obviously want to keep behind closed doors for any number of reasons.

But, what Bell Pottinger have done is downright unethical and gives the PR doubters more reason to see us as manipulative Svengali's and propagandists.

"How long do you think it will take for the team to "sort" out such negative coverage of its own brand?"


over 6 years ago

Vikki Chowney

Vikki Chowney, Head of Social at TMW

Thanks for your input all.

Andrew - you're totally right about the lack of specifics involved when making promises about search. Context is everything.

over 6 years ago

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