Why Unilever should sack Bell Pottinger

As sustainability/corporate responsibility becomes more integrated and embedded in some large companies (and in plenty of smaller ones), interesting questions are beginning to arise.

For example, I know of one major professional services firm which has recently had a request from a big multi-national client for much more detail on their sustainability policies. A friend of mine, who works there, was concerned that his company might not be quite up to scratch, when compared with the client.

This is happening more and more. It’s one of the reasons for an upcoming conference.

So big suppliers of large multi-national companies are now being asked to seriously engage in both sustainability policy development, and more importantly, performance.

This is not new, but it seems to me they are now being pushed on targets and indicators, which is why companies like Produce World, (UK’s biggest fruit and vegetable supplier) have responded recently in an increasingly impressive way.

But what about other firms in the big corporate supply chain? Where is this shift going next?

The Guardian today provides some detailed insight as to why ethical/sustainable policies and performance targets should be extended to other firms serving big companies.

For example, as linked to above, the public relations industry. I’ve blogged on this topic many times before over the years.

But it seems to me that soon it will become untenable for big, sustainably-minded companies to continue to employ PR and lobbying firms, even (or particularly) on sustainability, who act for deeply unethical clients. See the Guardian piece today for details.

I appreciate that when it comes to governments the picture is a little more complex, but just because a PR firm has ‘sustainability expertise’ (Like Hill & Knowlton, amongst many others, in a limited way) that doesn’t mean they are ethical. Not remotely.

For example, Bell Pottinger now works for both Unilever and Sinar Mas/Asia Pulp & Paper.

Unilever (along with a swathe of other firms) has ‘delisted’ Sinar Mas/APP as a supplier due to their appalling forestry practices and general recalcitrance.

Yet Unilever is quite happy to hand over sustainability communications to Bell Pottinger, (why they did this is a mystery given Bell has little history in the field) whilst Bell is working, overtly, for Sinar Mas/App, doing crisis management public relations for a company that clearly has little intention of curtailing their deforestation practices.

I can see why this has happened. Companies are not yet thinking about the ethics of their PR firm as part of how they assess who they give PR contracts too.

But I’d suggest that they should, and that they will do at some point in the near future. It’s logical for two reasons.

Firstly, why would a big, values-driven company like Unilever want to be supplied by clearly unethical PR firms? Companies want suppliers who share their values, after all.

Secondly, if the bigger professional services firms who supply larger companies are now being asked for their policies and performance data, the logical progression of this will be also ask other suppliers, like PR companies, in due course.

This is the point where I could suggest that a smart PR firm would clean up its act, and client list, in preparation for this shift.

The problem is, many of the larger PR and lobbying firms make a lot of their money from dodgy foreign governments seeking image rehabilitation, and companies (such as Trafigura, Sinar Mas, etc) who are not interested in sustainability.

So for PR firms, making the change would be expensive, likely require a generation change in leadership, and will depend on increasing pressure from large clients to happen.

There’s an opportunity for Unilever to show further leadership in sustainability.

Switching their PR away from Bell Pottinger on ethical grounds, and announcing that they will consider ethics and sustainability in their future supplier selections for PR would be an excellent start.


  1. Tim

    I’m responding to this in the context of my role at CO3, ( http://www.CO3.coop ), which I manage. Our organisation is a management consultancy that specialises in CSR. Our services include a variety of technical reporting and stakeholder communications advice.

    We have a number of past, current and potential multi-national clients and have on one occasion received criticism of the sort suggested within this piece. That criticism and, with respect, this piece entirely missed the point.

    CO3 aims to assist our clients in becoming more successful businesses through enhanced understanding and adoption of CSR concepts, improved stakeholder dialogue and more transparent reporting. In particular we wouldn’t and indeed don’t advise our clients to “spin” their CSR credentials in this area because if we did we would be giving rather poor advice. It is not unusual for CO3 to be approached by companies that are motivated by reputational issues. We think that it would be unprofessional and indeed unethical for us to apply a subjective “moral code” concerning whether a potential client is “suitable” as part of our decision making process. Our own criteria are based on whether we believe that we are able to assist the organisation in becoming more responsible and, therefore, more successful.

    Clearly this decision making process also involves an assessment of whether the client genuinely wishes to pursue a more responsible approach or, for instance, whether it simply wishes to spin its credentials in this area. We don’t think the suggestion of assessing organisations, such as ours, on the basis of subjective opinions concerning client activity, is at all relevant to an assessment of our own commitment to being a responsible business.

  2. Tony, I think the most interesting question here is whether companies should be including sustainability criteria in developing their target customers. Arguing for the exclusion of a particular potential client is tough and a very subjective call. Picking one or more independent sustainability criteria and then including those on your weighing criteria for targeting new customers is a positive and more objective approach to the problem. After all, if we buy in to sustainability, those companies are going to be around the longest – so it makes business sense.

    Excuse the self promotion, but I wrote a post about this a little while ago http://csrperspective.com/uncategorized/should-we-pick-our-customers/.

  3. Khalid

    Toby — a question: should the same argument therefore apply to law firms?

  4. Kevin, Tim, Khalid, thanks for your comments.

    Kevin: Appreciate your nuanced approach. But I do think sometimes a company should hold up its hands and say "We got this wrong" and change it, rather than waiting until the contract comes up for renewal.

    Tim: Thanks for the sales pitch. I don't think I did miss the point. You have clearly chosen a path which you justify to yourself. But I reject the idea that one cannot and should not be subjective. We are all subjective in our daily lives and your argument, a bit like the amoral business case for CSR, doesn't stack up. I'm guessing all the better clients have been hoovered up by better known consultants, so what's left are those with big problems, who, let's face it, often try to spin their way out of trouble. Both Vedanta and Sinar Mas fall into this recalcitrant category. Vedanta, I believe, are not as bad as the NGOs make out, but still suffer from a serious lack of engaged leadership, and so, fall into the NGO trap again and again.

    Khalid: I do agree. Lawyers should be subject to the same ethical audit. Large companies have tremendous purchasing power that can be used for good. I am not suggesting they ask for all confidential information, (although much is 'confidential' until companies want to discuss it, including with banks and lawyers, in my experience!) but what's wrong with a values audit of some sort?

    By that I mean working out whether big suppliers have similar approaches to ethical issues and asking them for information about how they tackle these issues.

    To my earlier point, a little subjectivity will come into play here, but that's life. We either pretend it doesn't exist (like Tim), or we get on and tackle complexity head on. We may not always get it right, but trying is better than ignoring. Hence my original posting.


  5. Tim

    I think I should clarity why I posted this comment. CO3 very rarely advertises its services and conducts little or no marketing activity. We maintain a website for transparency purposes, to distribute information to our stakeholders and also to maintain a reference point for our own activities. I mentioned who we are and what we do in my commentary so that anyone reading it would understand the context.

    It is obviously important to remove as much subjectivity as possible when making a decision about whether to work with a new client. One person's idea of what is "ethical" can be affected by a host of related matters including faith, political beliefs and personal experiences. We have a responsibility to our potential clients to ensure that, should we choose to turn a piece of work down (and we have done this), the decision is made as objectively and fairly as possible. This is why we have policies and systems in place for this purpose and why we have thought long and hard about how to operate this decision making process.

    The fair and equitable way to operate this system is the one I have described above. It would be unfair to operate it in another way. This is why your original post completely missed the point and also why the basis of your attack on Bell Pottinger was also very unfair.

  6. Thanks for the comment Tim. I guess we'll have to disagree. I think it's you who have missed the point, whilst you think I have.

    A philosophical values clash I guess. And it depends on the 'point' as viewed by each.

    I fail to see how my Bell Pottinger attack is unfair. Doing crisis comms for a company such as Sinar Mas, who will only change when forced to do so for commercial reasons or regulatory enforcement and sanction, is clearly not a values-based decision.

    It's purely based on money. And Bell Pottinger have clearly stated they have no problem working with anyone if the money is right.

    My view is this is wrong, and your view appears to be that as long as one is getting paid, that's all that counts.

    I'd suggest doing a bit of research into Sinar Mas and their impacts, and seeing if you still hold the same view. If you then do, then, well, I guess morals are just not an issue for you, along with most of the PR industry.

    PR firms (however they dress themselves up as 'strategic consultants', are far more the problem than the solution right now.

    Until they begin to address this, I fully reserve the right to point fingers at them. Someone should.

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