Arun Sudhaman

Working the angles around media, comms and marketing.

Fenton furore puts agency ethics under the spotlight again

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This story is also posted to the Holmes Report here

The issue of agency ethics—and specifically whether some clients are undeserving of agency representation—has again reared its head following the news that US firm Fenton Communications is representing a Qatari group that is determined to break the Gaza blockade in Israel.

In the US, home to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby, Fenton’s $240,000 contract with Al-Fahkoora has sparked fierce criticism. One industry veteran has called for Fenton to resign the brief and donate the fees to an organisation that is “not connected with mayhem, murder and terror.”

That suggestion comes from Bruce Rubin, founder of the firm that is today rbb Public Relations, and former chairman of the Counselor’s Academy of the PRSA.

“For me, this falls squarely into the unethical and immoral category,” said Rubin.

Al Fakhoora, a supporter of the Hamas regime that governs the Gaza strip, states on its website that it has launched a campaign to change the public perception in the West about Israel and its actions.

Speaking to Middle East Newsline, Al Fakhoora director Farooq Burney said that his group needed to “start somewhere to face the Israeli lobby groups and their sophisticated strategies.”

“So, Fenton has signed up to help change the public perception about Israel,” said Rubin.

However, Levick Strategic Communications CEO Richard Levick defended Fenton’s decision to take on the brief. Levick himself is no stranger to such controversy, having previously overseen a campaign on behalf of inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

“If they have met all of the legal requirements, then it’s a subjective decision for company to make on their own,” said Levick. “Fenton has made their brand as a controversial position-oriented comms firm.”

Fenton, which did not respond to requests to comment, also consults for, the US liberal group that raised millions of dollars for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Levick added that Fenton’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing did not reveal evidence of any anti-American activities. The contract makes no mention of either Israel or the Gaza Strip, and largely details initiatives to promote education opportunities worldwide. It also calls for Fenton to provide comms support for the Al Fakhoora project.

FARA records reveal a further two contracts between Fenton and Qatar. Last year, Fenton handled another Al-Fakhoora campaign, worth $120,000, to call for accountability “of those who participated in attacks on schools in Gaza.”

Levick points out that lobbyists and PR firms can play “extraordinary beneficial roles” in facilitating “back-channel cooperation” between countries.

“Public opinion is a fickle thing and we would be having the same conversation 30 years ago if the client was Egypt,” he added. “But now Egypt is an extraordinarily close ally of the US and Israel.”

For Rubin, the issue is more black and white. He says that “US PR firms should reject the opportunity to represent any nation or organisation which, at the end of the day, portrays the US or any of its close allies as an enemy. “

And whilst he admits that agencies are free to choose who they represent, “that doesn’t mean we need to abandon common sense.”

“For example, it’s legal for an agency to represent a Charles Manson type multiple murderer,” said Rubin. “But that doesn’t mean we should.  In our country, everyone is entitled to legal counsel, not public relations counsel.”

PR agencies have come under increasing scrutiny for the clients they represent, thanks to stronger disclosure obligations, coupled with the internet’s ability to help disseminate information.

Last year, for example, Burson-Marsteller was publicly attacked by an MSNBC news anchor for its work on behalf of security firm Blackwater. In the UK, meanwhile, Bell Pottinger courted controversy when it emerged that it was overseeing comms for oil traders Trafigura. And recent months have seen media-shy Brunswick attract considerable attention because of its relationship with BP.

Agencies are right to be more wary, said Levick, but that should not obscure a more fundamental point.

“For any issue, if everyone agreed with your client’s position then there wouldn’t be much need for lobbyists and comms folk,” said Levick. “We think long and hard about the issues we take on. We also meet with our clients and make a determination about whether they have a point of view that is supportable.”


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