Can a British PR firm save Yemen?

Yemen's political crisis has taken a strange new turn with the hiring of one of Britain's leading public relations firms – ostensibly in an attempt to end the impasse.

The company, Bell Pottinger, is working for "an unnamed special entity that has been created within the Yemen government to ensure a transition to newly elected government", according to Guardian journalist Robert Booth:

"It is unclear which part of the government the firm [is working for], but the goal of the communications campaign appears 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.

"The firm is understood not to be working for Saleh, who is recovering in Saudi Arabia following a bomb attack on his compound last month.

"[Lord Bell, the company's chairman] stressed that the objective of his firm's contract is to assist the government through negotiations and within the Yemeni constitution to achieve a peaceful transition to a new government."

What exactly this means in practice, or whether it will actually help, remains to be seen. 

Bell Pottinger, which has some highly controversial customers among its 600 worldwide clients, promotes its services on the basis of developing "better reputations". 

Its website proclaims: "At Bell Pottinger, we understand how to create, build and protect reputations in the modern age."

Last year it was hired by the Mubarak regime in Egypt "to review the ways in which the government communicates with the international media and to advise on how to get the government's messages better understood internationally".

Earlier this year, the company was working for the government of Bahrain at the time of the crackdown on protesters. Reporting on its activites in February, PR Week said:

"Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell said that he felt under no pressure to resign the account following the seven killings [of protesters] ...

"Lord Bell commented: 'We work for the Economic Development Board. Whatever happens, the economy has got to grow. We're nothing to do with the constitution, we're nothing to do with Sunnis and Shiites'."

Nevertheless, according to PR Week, the company took on extra responsiblities during the unrest which included "handling media centre enquiries about the protests".

On February 23, Bell Pottinger issued a statement about a meeting between Lord Astor of Hever, undersecretary at the British defence ministry, and Bahrain's crown prince, Sheikh Salman.

The statement claimed: "The UK backs all initiatives taken by the kingdom's leadership to safeguard the country from extremism and internal division, promote national unity and protect the legitimate ruling system advocated by the Bahraini people."

Next day, the British embassy in Bahrain complained that this was "an inaccurate representation of the conversation". Lord Astor had merely supported "peaceful management of the protests" and welcomed the idea of a national dialogue, it said.

In April, Bell Pottinger announced that it had temporarily suspended "most" of its contracts with the Bahrain government.

In a report last year on London as the world's capital of "reputation laundering", Robert Booth wrote:

The doyen of this business is Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime Group, which runs Bell Pottinger. His firm's political contracts include Sri Lanka, where the government was recently accused of war crimes and Madagascar, where he acts for the former president, Marc Ravalomanana, who was forced out following violent clashes and was sentenced in absentia to four years in jail for abuse of office in buying a presidential jet. Bell's position on the ethics of which contracts to take is simple.

"I wouldn't do anything I would do a bad job on," he said. "It is about the direction of travel. I don't choose to sit in judgment on whether they are going fast enough. If the direction of travel is right then I am perfectly happy to help them."

There are plenty of Arab regimes looking for help at the moment. "Almost certainly all this turbulence will result in more contracts," Lord Bell predicted in an interview last March. And if Yemen is anything to judge by, he could be right.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 July 2011