Bell Pottinger Private
|Type||Private limited company|
|Key people||Lord Bell (Chairman)
David Beck and David Wilson
(Joint Managing Directors)
|Revenue||£137.7 million (2010)|
|Subsidiaries||Pelham Bell Pottinger|
Bell Pottinger Private (legally BPP Communications Ltd.; informally Bell Pottinger) is a British multinational public relations and marketing company headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income.
Bell Pottinger offers services such as lobbying, speech writing, search engine optimisation and "sorting" (fixing) Wikipedia articles to clients including companies, governments and high net worth individuals. In December 2011, it came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and abusing Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin.
Bell Pottinger was, until July 2012, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chime Communications plc. Lord Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger.
Bell Pottinger's origins go back to 1985, when Bell and Frank Lowe founded Lowe Bell as a subsidiary of Lowe Howard-Spink. Bell and Piers Pottinger bought out Lowe Bell in 1989, and it was subsequently floated in 1994 as Chime Communications plc but retained the name Lowe Bell on some of its subsidiary companies. In 1998, the subsidiaries were renamed as Bell Pottinger after Frank Lowe demanded that his name be removed. In 2000 the Bell Pottinger Group acquired Harvard Public Relations and QBO, which was renamed Bell Pottinger Public Relations. In 2001 Bell Pottinger acquired MMK in Germany and also The Smart Company, which was merged into Corporate Citizenship when the Group acquired it in 2007. In 2003 Resonate, a consumer public relations company was set up. In 2004 Bell Pottinger Communications USA was launched and in 2005 Bell Pottinger Middle East was launched with offices in Bahrain in 2009. In 2009 Bell Pottinger Change & Internal Communications was launched and Ptarmigan in Leeds was acquired by the Bell Pottinger Group.
In May 2012, it was reported that Lord Bell had agreed a £20m deal to buy most of the Bell Pottinger branded PR businesses from Chime, with Chime retaining a 25% stake in the venture and a seat on the board. The MBO was completed on 30 June 2012 with BPP Communications (Bell Pottinger Private) trading as an independent business from 1 July 2012. Chime retained the Good Relations group of PR businesses, including Harvard, Corporate Citizenship, MMK and Ptarmigan, and some UK regional offices formerly branded as Bell Pottinger were rebranded to Good Relations.
Bell Pottinger has offices in London, North America, the Middle East and south-east Asia. It offers consumer, corporate and financial, healthcare, technology, industrial, public affairs, public sector, corporate social responsibility, internal communication, crisis and issues management services.
The Bell Pottinger Private Group includes Pelham Bell Pottinger, Bell Pottinger Public Relations, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Middle East, and Bell Pottinger USA.
The company plans to enable clients to attempt to influence European Union legislative processes by organizing participation in "European Citizens' Initiatives", a mechanism intended for grassroots involvement.
Notable Bell Pottinger clients include:
- The government of Bahrain.
- Emirates Airline: Bell Pottinger won the global account in 2000, the account is managed by David Wilson. In February 2001, Bell Pottinger landed the Chelsea/Emirates deal.
- Currencies Direct: this account was won by Bell Pottinger following a competitive pitch in 2008.
- Fortnum & Mason: first hired QBO Bell Pottinger in 2004. Bell Pottinger handles its retail and brand PR.
- Milklink: hired Bell Pottinger initially in 2003.
- EADS: in April 2009, Bell Pottinger fought off six rival agencies to land a wide-ranging public affairs retainer with EADS.
- Airbus: the Bell Pottinger Group has worked with Airbus on UK government relations since 2004.
- The RSA Group appointed Fallon in advertising and Bell Pottinger in public relations in November 2009.
- Dutch oil company Trafigura. In September 2009, a Guardian article claimed that Bell Pottinger was "appalled" by a report into the Trafigura toxic oil disaster by a UN Human Rights repporteur. The full Guardian article in the national newspaper alleged that Bell Pottinger had claimed the report was premature, inaccurate, potentially damaging, poorly researched and deeply flawed. The UN report listed 15 deaths and 108,000 medical consultations. The Guardian also claimed that, later, Trafigura agreed to pay compensation to 31,000 west African victims. In October 2009, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, posited that Lord (Tim) Bell "will be in charge of attempts to reposition positive public perceptions of the Trafigura brand. He might, for instance, suggest they become an official sponsor of the British Lions tour of South Africa and an arts prize".
- DWF: the national law firm's Liverpool office appointed Bell Pottinger North in March 2010. The campaign is overseen by associate director Richard Clein.
- The government of Sri Lanka.
- Dyson Ltd.
- Cuadrilla Resources
- Rolf Harris
Past clients include:
- Asma Assad, wife of Syrian president Bashar al Assad
- The government of Belarus.
- Kate and Gerry McCann
- Ali Abdullah Saleh
- Boris Berozovsky
- The Templeton Prize
- Augusto Pinochet and the Pinochet Foundation
On 6 December 2011, the British national newspaper The Independent ran a front page story based on covert filming by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which the paper claimed revealed executives from Bell Pottinger boasting of ways in which they burnished the reputations of countries accused of human rights violations. Posing as representatives of a fake investment body linked to the Uzbekistan government, the journalists had filmed a presentation at which Bell Pottinger executives explained techniques used on behalf of their clients. At one point, Tim Collins of Bell Pottinger—who has close connections with Prime Minister David Cameron, Edward Llewellyn, and Steve Hilton—had referred to "dark arts".
It was also reported that senior executives at Bell Pottinger told the undercover reporters that they had written a key speech given by the Sri Lankan President to the United Nations, in which he had described military action against Tamil Tiger separatists as "humanitarian". During a meeting with reporters, David Wilson—the chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations—had stated: "We had a team working in the President's office. We wrote the President's speech to the UN last year which was very well received... it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go".
And where we want to get to – and this will take time, this is where David's team are magical – is you get to the point where even if they type in "Uzbek child labour" or "Uzbek human rights violation", some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is.
In the recording, the executives claimed to have access to or relationships with numerous senior British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne; David Cameron's former Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton; James Arbuthnot (chair of the Defence Select Committee); and MP Rory Stewart.
Collins also claimed that Bell Pottinger had been involved in David Cameron raising a matter with the Chinese government on behalf of a Bell Pottinger client, saying:
…Just as a final example just for you... I'm not saying we can always do this but just as an example of what we can sometimes do. Three weeks ago, we were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon by one of our clients, Dyson... They rang up and they said look, we've got a huge issue, and that is that a lot of our products are being completely ripped off in China, to the point where they're not just completely duplicating the product... (The) Chinese government won't take it seriously, it's half past two on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the Chinese Prime Minister is coming in for a UK visit – can you please get the UK to raise it?...And I'm pleased to say that on the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister and showed him the photos of the products. I'm not saying we can do that all the time but that is an illustration of what, if you have the right message – David Cameron, yes he was doing it for Dyson, yes he was doing it because we asked him to do it, he was doing this also because he thought this was also in the UK wider national interest. This was something where there would be a UK proper interest. But in terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you've got the right message, yes, we can do it.
The allegations of Bell Pottinger directly influencing the British Prime Minister and other senior Government figures on behalf of private sector clients led to calls from the opposition Labour Party for the Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to launch an investigation, and from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency for the immediate introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists.
On 8 December 2011, the UK national newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that some Wikipedia user accounts allegedly linked to Bell Pottinger had been suspended. Its report stated that "Further claims published in the Independent today suggested that the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year, some of them adding favourable comments and others removing negative comments. Alterations were said to have been made by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who used the pseudonym 'Biggleswiki'." Among the articles edited by "Biggleswiki" was the Wikipedia entry for Dahabshiil, a funds transfer firm. On the same day, The Independent reported that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had described Bell Pottinger as "ethically blind", after it had admitted altering Wikipedia pages relating to its clients.
On 9 December 2011, The Independent published further allegations, including that Bell Pottinger had targeted the Wikipedia entry of Gordon Brown's sister-in-law, the environmental campaigner Clare Rewcastle Brown, and the South African arms manufacturer the Paramount Group. On the same day, it was reported that a parliamentary investigation into lobbying firms, including Bell Pottinger, and their links with ministers, would be launched, and that an internal investigation had begun at Bell Pottinger.
In response to the articles published on the 6th to 9th December 2011, Bell Pottinger lodged a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) against the Independent, claiming that the information about its activities published by the newspaper had been obtained through subterfuge and was not of sufficient public interest to merit the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's undercover investigation. However, in its ruling, the PCC agreed with the Bureau that there was a "broad public interest in exploring the relationship between lobbying and politics" and that it would not have been possible to obtain details of the techniques used by the lobbying company through other means. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's editor, Iain Overton, welcomed the PCC's ruling, saying: "During our undercover filming Bell Pottinger executives explained to us that one of the PR tools they used to attack news stories was to make an official complaint to the PCC. True to its word, Bell Pottinger went on the offensive following our exposé claiming foul".
In June 2014, Bell Pottinger was a notable absentee from a group of major agencies which publicly pledged to abide by Wikipedia's rules and end the practice of amending their clients' Wikipedia pages.
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