Consultancies and who they work for

One of the best ways to define a consultancy is to see who they won’t work for rather than who they do.

Now that may seem odd in the light of the emphasis PR industry critics place on who the clients of particular consultancies are. But the ethics of working for various clients is sometimes problematic and the judgement is often coloured by the views of the critics more than the inherent issues to do with the client. For instance the blog long worked for the forest products industry and to many environmentalists that was an evil decision.

From the blog’s point of view it seemed hardly evil to work for an industry which used totally renewable resources to produce totally recyclable products. Indeed, the blog often mused that he would take some environmentalists more seriously when they stopped chaining themselves to trees and instead chained themselves to the gate of a plant making V8 automotive engines.

The problem was that environmentalists knew that forests were an emotive issue and something Australians could care about without having to make significant changes to their lifestyle. This phenomenon was encapsulated in a Woody Allen-Bette Midler film in a scene in their west coast kitchen. The kitchen, in a house perched high on a Pacific beach, had almost every kind of electric motor imaginable arranged around the room. The morning paper had just arrived and Allen goes into a tirade because it is wrapped in plastic. How many times, he rants, have we told the paper boy that we are strong environmentalists?  Similarly, a former Australian Conservation Foundation CEO, who tried to shift the organisation’s emphasis to ‘brown’ environmental issues at the height of the forests debate was forced to return to forests when donations dropped off.

The anti-alcohol lobby seeks to exclude anyone who has anything to do with the alcohol industry and the blog well remembers, during its time on the DrinkWise board, various attacks on it from Professor Mike Daube, formerly among other things a WA Healthways director, arguing that because the blog had had clients in the alcohol industry he was an illegitimate advocate of moderate alcohol consumption.

But while the blog worked for forest products company and the alcohol industry its consultancy didn’t work for tobacco companies; passed on the opportunity to work for the gun lobby; and had various other , to some no doubt idiosyncratic, client prohibitions. The blog, as a young Eric White Associates consultant, did undertake a project in the 1960s for Phillip Morris which sponsored an NGV contemporary art exhibition called Air. Amidst the promotional work the blog found itself, although it was not part of the brief, finding the odd joint for the Hunter College curators who accompanied the exhibition and escorting them to various Carlton parties. None of these activities were billable unfortunately.

However, the blog was struck by the decision by the US consultancy Scribe Strategies & Advisors to accept $260,000 in fees for representing the Ugandan Government to combat US reactions to the introduction of anti-homosexuality legislation which aimed to punish gays with life imprisonment.

Scribe Strategies and Advisor’s website says it “has been helping domestic and international clients achieve specific business strategy goals for more than two decades. Our mission is to help you grow your business. What sets us apart is the personal service you receive from our experienced senior counselors.”

“We are recognized experts in our respective fields, with unparalleled experience. Our founder worked in the White House (for George Bush Snr) on international policy issues. Our head of Defense and Homeland Security is a former award-winning journalist and news bureau chief. Our Aerospace and Defense experts have helped nearly 100 companies secure more than $20 billion in sales in 23 countries around the globe.

“Our team specializes in international reach, where we have developed key relationships with political elites, business executives, academics, and opinion leaders. We leverage those relationships – primarily focused in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India – to help our clients succeed. Not only do we know each region’s business culture, we have experienced consultants on the ground to handle your most sensitive projects.

“We create business opportunities and solve problems under a wide range of political climates and economic conditions. Representing both corporations and countries, we specialize in working with international firms that would like to do business in the U.S., as well as U.S. firms seeking business opportunities abroad.”

The website cites a satisfied client, the Interior Minister of an unnamed North African country, as saying: “We are extremely satisfied with our partnership with Scribe Strategies. They have managed some very delicate, inter-governmental negotiations on our behalf.” The firm’s client list includes Uganda, Gabon, Kenya, Benin and Oman as well as the defence contractors they helped win $20 billion in sales.

What the sub texts of ‘sensitive’ and ‘Interior Minister’ in these contexts might be fascinating and even without that the blog’s consultancy would not have worked for the Ugandan government on a project such as this. The fundamental reason for that is principled but in the unlikely event that SS&A had asked the blog’s advice it would have said there were two compelling reasons to refuse the gig: first the principle and second the reality that gay staff, gay clients and gay activists would agitate against the company and threaten boycotts. It’s bad enough to do something which is wrong –  but it’s even worse when it’s dumb as well.