Sociopathic PR Firms and the Clients They Serve

Part one of two…

I work in the world of marketing and corporate communications, and my track record of business-related posts (here and at my biz site, Black Dog Strategic) probably demonstrates how seriously I take ethical concerns. For instance, not long ago I made clear that I think understanding the truth of a bad news story aimed at a client comes before worrying about how to respond. Back in November, I took a hard look at the eroding credibility of public relations as a profession and suggested that maybe the behavior of PR practitioners had a lot to do with our slide into lawyer, hooker and used car salesman territory. At various points along the way I’ve ventured opinions on everything and everybody from Toyota to Tiger Woods (to Augusta National), BP to LBJ, Target to Dillard’s, and Rupert Murdoch to the Denver Post, which used to be a newspaper.

Sometimes I comment on what strike me as merely bad strategies. Other times it’s about indefensible behavior that calls into question people’s character. But this time we’re so far over the line that we’re not talking about ethics or professional standards or strategic judgment. No, today we’re talking about amorality and the rank sociopathology of an industry (or at least a significant segment of it).


Of course, there are always things agencies can say in their defense. It was done before the brutal crackdowns began, or it was a fashion piece, or we only work for the economic development arm of the government, or we’ve stopped now, or it was on behalf of a truly worthy project in the country, or we thought they were committed to doing the right thing. Saying things, after all, and doing so smoothly and elegantly and cleverly and occasionally with the slightest dab of misdirection, is what folks in my industry do.

But sometimes nothing you can say is sufficient. If the thing you’re defending yourself against is reflective of a larger pattern, then we know all we need to know. However – what if, instead, a particular PR firm that has heretofore represented nothing but noble and charitable clients, working tirelessly to improve the world, what if this firm chooses to represent a bottom-of-the-barrel client?

Past accomplishments obviously factor into how we evaluate a crime. Businesses (and individuals) can earn a great deal in the way of presumed innocence, and intelligent observers can usually tell the difference between a one-off mistake in judgment and a pattern of anti-social behavior. Still, there are some decisions that no amount of accumulated good faith can overcome, especially when only a barking moron could have failed to understand the magnitude of the problem beforehand.

Perhaps we can examine client lists and histories and find excuses to mitigate behavior if we try hard enough, but is there some reason why we should? At some point don’t we have to stop the rationalizing and acknowledge that Libya and Syria, at least, are nations with long histories. Long, long histories, and I’m not talking histories of charity, philanthropy and democracy, either. No, we’re talking about things like brutal oppression (you know, like the campaigns they’re waging against dissidents at present) and support for terrorist organizations. There’s simply no way to conclude that the decisions to represent these interests was about anything other than money. If you’d represent Gadhafi, you’d represent Satan if he showed up with a suitcase full of unmarked bills.

The good news is that these firms are taking heavy fire for their actions. Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of Public Relations Society of America and an Associate Profesor at Florida International, pulls no punches in a comprehensive beatdown at The Hill.

They were, in effect, counseling enemies of global democracy; ruthless despots who cut down their own people to save whatever feeble remnants of their legacies may remain. When asked to explain their questionable work, most offer a ham-handed response to the effect of: “We’re just the messengers.” This explanation is an insult to all who value transparent and ethical communications from governments and private businesses alike.

In trying to improve tyrants’ images and reputations, these firms are damaging America’s international reputation.

Ethical public relations places an emphasis on counseling reputable organizations and individuals in developing and maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders. The Libyan, Syrian and Bahraini governments have not shown the slightest inclination to cultivate this type of cooperative relationship. Yet all three have seduced American public relations firms into working on their behalf.

One has to question what the attraction is. Is it all for the allure of working with a big-name client and the money?

Efforts to “enhance international appreciation of Libya and positive news coverage of the country,” as the Monitor Group engaged in, or to secure a fawning Vogue magazine profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, asBrown Lloyd James reportedly accomplished (Vogue eventually removed the profile from its website after heavy international protest from readers), do little to build Americans’ trust in these governments. Most disturbingly, the work insults the very freedoms that allow these firms to engage in such questionable services in the first place.

Kudos to Fiske for using her very prominent platform to draw a line in the sand regarding this sort of sociopathic activity by firms like those cited above. I’m going to take it a step further, though. If one of these agencies represented my business I’d fire them on the spot (and post an explanation on my corporate site explaining precisely why). In this spirit, then, there might be some value in calling attention to the other organizations out there doing business with these firms. Should an existing client decide that they don’t want to be associated with the kind of ethics normally associated with arms dealers, or should a customer want to call or e-mail one of these companies with a complaint, well, that’s the 1st Amendment in action, isn’t it? And since we don’t live in Syria, Libya or Bahrain, we’re theoretically in favor of the exercise of free speech…

So, here are the client lists of the PR counselors in question. This list is compiled from the firm’s own sites and other sources, effective August 16, 2011.

Brown Lloyd James

New York:


  • Al Jazeera English
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Really Useful Group
  • Forbes
  • HartSharp Entertainment
  • Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute
  • Russia Today (RT)


  • AARP
  • Autism Speaks
  • British Memorial Garden
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • China-US Exchange Foundation
  • Institute of International Education – Goldman Sachs
  • Loomba Trust
  • Marine Conservation Alliance
  • Pew Environment Group
  • Reach Out to Asia
  • Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs(Qatar)
  • The Open Hands Initiative


  • AstraZeneca
  • Challenger, Ltd.
  • Christie’s
  • Doha Bank
  • IBM
  • State Farm
  • United Group for Projects (Qatar)
  • WILL Interactive


  • City of London Corporation
  • Embassy of the State of Qatar
  • Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme
  • Independent Panel Review of the World Bank Group DII
  • The State of Qatar



  • Al Jazeera English
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Really Useful Group
  • Associated Newspapers – Metro, Evening Standard, London Lite
  • Forbes
  • HarperCollins Publishers
  • Telegraph Media Group – The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph


  • The Prince’s Teaching Institute


  • The Black Farmer
  • Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB)
  • Disneyland Resort Paris
  • Monaco Government Tourist & Convention Authority
  • OKA Direct
  • The Royal Opera House
  • The Royal Opera House Manchester
  • The Walt Disney Corporation


  • Girls’ Schools Association
  • Judicial Appointments Commission
  • Lord Levy
  • Maison de Monaco
  • Oxford University
  • The Principality of Monaco



  • Al Jazeera English
  • @bahrain


  • Al Fakhoora
  • Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar
  • Georgetown University- School of Foreign Services in Qatar
  • HH The Amir’s Katrina Fund
  • Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs


  • Carbon Trust
  • Centrica (British Gas)
  • Doha Bank
  • Qatalum
  • Qatar Financial Center
  • Qatargas
  • Qatari Diar
  • United Group for Projects


  • Education City – Qatar Foundation
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • Qatar Tourism and Exhibitions Authority

Bell Pottinger

  • The government of Bahrain.
  • Emirates Airline
  • Fortnum & Mason
  • Milklink
  • BPEX
  • EADS
  • Airbus
  • RSA Group
  • PowerPerfector
  • Trafigura
  • Almac Group
  • DWF
  • The government of Sri Lanka
  • Britvic
  • Cadbury’s
  • Currencies Direct
  • Davenport Lyons
  • DP World
  • Emirates Airlines
  • HP
  • Innovation Expo
  • It’s Your Choice
  • Kellogg’s
  • McAfee
  • Milklink
  • Müller
  • Seven Seas
  • Skills for Business
  • Sky
  • SynCo Bio Partners
  • Unilever
  • TAG
  • Viridor Waste Management
  • VISA
  • Vodafone
  • Waitrose

Potomac Square Group

  • No information available.

Qorvis Communications

  • George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens
  • Intel
  • Kennedy Krieger Institute
  • Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America
  • Plasan
  • Revolution Health
  • Rosslyn Business Improvement District
  • The Washington Post
  • Virginia Lottery
  • Youthaids

Monitor Group

  • According to Wikipedia: “The Monitor Group does not disclose its list of clients. Even when discussing clients in-house, Monitor uses acronyms to protect client’s identities, a mark of Monitor’s hyper-confidentiality. Some engagements that have appeared in the press due to their public nature include a major initiative with the Libyan government and an organizational effort with the University of California.

Anybody who can help me fill out the client lists for The Monitor Group and Potomac Square Group, please drop me a note.

Next: Tips for PR Pros Thinking About Hiring on With Distressed Brands…


  • Huh. Very clever. And I thought that I worked in a sleazy industry. I suppose the skill-set that lets my employer (and others like it) lend to both Bahrain and Doctors without Borders is the same one that lets you do PR for both entities. Lawyers have an excuse. Bankers and PR firms really don’t.

    • I frequently have cause to feel embarrassed by others in my field. Lately I seem to be getting even bitchier when I see them behaving badly. The Fiske piece was most welcome because all too often I feel like I’m the only one talking honestly about this stuff. Yeah, everybody pays lip service to ethics, but so often it’s in a way that’s plastic as hell. And, as I have been known to remind my students, “ethics” is a potentially meaningless term. It doesn’t mean moral, it just means you adhere to an established code. Ethical codes can disagree diametrically (the old Kant vs. Mill debate comes to mind).

      So it seems unlikely that I will ever be less bitchy….

  • It seems like your argument is predicated heavily on hindsight, which as we all know is 20/20. It’s a slippery slope…

    One thought example:

    The Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which runs the detention camp in Guantanamo, is looking for representation. But you believe the camp is immoral and unethical. Do you pitch? No? OK, then would you pitch for any account in the US military? OK, What about to represent any other branch of the US government (which is all part of the same administration that is doing nothing to shutter Guantanamo despite previous statements that they would)?

  • Irwin: I’d stay away from the JTF, and at this point pretty much anything associated with the Obama administration. Obama has reneged on most of the promises he made and at this stage shows no inclination whatsoever to change. In that environment, it’s like I say above – all I could do would be to enable and make things worse.

    There may be some specific elements of the govt that I would take on, but I’d have to think long and hard about that generalized shit storm issue.

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