In our ‘Contemporary Theories and Issues in PR’ module, we recently had a debate with this prompt: Lobbyists further the interests of powerful elites and imbalance the democratic process – the lobbying industry should be banned.
Initially I thought to myself lobbying is just like any other form of public relations. Lobbying tries to influence the public on a point or issue just like other PR sectors.
However, when I started researching lobbying, I changed my mind.
In the 2012 European Communications Monitor, lobbying, public affairs and governmental relations had the most trouble with ethical issues. According to the 2,137 public relations practitioners that were surveyed, 66.7% of them said they faced ethical issues once to several times in their workplace.
What more unethical of a workplace dilemma than that of the Bell Pottinger ‘dark arts’ scandal that took place in December of 2011.
Bell Pottinger Private is a multinational public relations firm in London with the motto ‘better reputations, better results’. They focus specifically on reputation management and digital communications through lobbying, speech writing, search engine optimisation and editing Wikipedia articles across different sectors for many companies and high net worth individuals.
Bell Pottinger is most recognised now because of a front-page story in The Independent about how the Bureau of Investigative Journalism secretly filmed a consult which revealed Bell Pottinger boasting of ways in which improve the reputations of countries accused of human rights violations.
The journalists posed as agents linked to the Uzbekistan government, noted as a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour.
The Independent reported Tim Bell used the phrase ‘dark arts’ to describe the different methods they use to improve the reputations of their clients including access to David Cameron and his closest staff to speak to clients, manipulating Google results, and a team which “sorts” negative Wikipedia coverage of clients.
However, it should be known that Bell Pottinger Private weren’t the only firm willing to provide less than ethical services to the fictitious Uzbekistan agents.
‘The Bureau contacted ten London firms. Two refused to take the business, several others did not reply, while five including Bell Pottinger appeared to be keen to work with the fictitious Uzbek representatives. Bell Pottinger quoted “£1m-plus” as a fee for carrying out the work.’ – The Telegraph
It is hard to deny that unethical practises are in effect in the lobbying field. Lobbying is nothing new, and neither are the scandals. Even the David Cameron came out publicly and said lobbying would be the next big scandal, and so it was.
It is hard to understand why lobbying is still allowed to be practised when cases like Bell Pottinger occur so regularly that firms have techniques designed to sway the public opinion without using real skills or the actual democracy that lobbying allows for.
Lobbying needs to be eradicated to make way for more ethical methods of influencing the public; a way that can be governed, monitored, regulated and held accountable for- the way that all democratic processes should be because they deal with the vulnerable public.