‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (3) Elective Affinities — Populus
When does a PR company become a pollster or a lobbyist, do rigid demarcations stand between them? Opinion poll firms, marketing, PR companies, what Bill Hick’s grouped as ‘Satan’s little helpers’ in our epigram might appear to be something of a smooth flowing behind-the-scenes nexus; but they are an acrimonious group. Back in 2004 they themselves made accusations of compromised research, inappropriate political connections and links with public relation firms, as the Observer put it some years ago on unrelated matters:
High-profile MPs are demanding a government investigation into pollsters’ methodology, the possibility that questions are loaded to suit clients’ interests and establishing if shareholding links to outside organisations harms the industry. Loved by newspapers and devoured by politicians, opinion poll findings make for guaranteed media coverage. Whether research based on the public’s political mood or testing a new product, they have become a vital marketing tool.
So who runs these companies? Are they political in any way, what processes do they set up, what other companies are they connected to?
Populus, is headed by ex-Conservative Central Office pollster Andrew Cooper, and were mentioned in the report from which the above quotation is drawn. Populus replaced Mori (now Ipsos-MORI) as the Times’ polling firm, and this close relationship to the press is also integral to how the companies function to influence public opinion for the benefit of their clients. Populus is also part of the lobbying association known as the Stockholm Network, indeed Populus’ Roderick Nye (a former director of the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank and once the policy director for the Conservatives) is a director of the Stockholm Network (SN). Populus’ Andrew Cooper was also with the SMF and is also involved with the Stockholm Network, which gathers together some 120 free market-oriented think tanks and offers a propaganda service in the press. Helen Disney is the chief executive of the Stockholm Network and its founder who also worked at the SMF. Both Populus and the SN collaborate, such as with the (2006) Impatient for Change: European attitudes to healthcare reform. Writing in The Times in December 2005, Paul Staines wrote that the Stockholm Network:
…turns out to be in fact the public face of Market House International, a PR consultancy that tells corporate clients that the network gives it “local capacity to deliver both local messages and locally tailored global messages in a wide range of countries.”
We cannot really say whether any MSP would know it or not, but Populus are presently working for ASDA. According to its sales pitch: ‘Populus tracks the reputation of Asda-Wal*Mart among its most senior stakeholders.’ They say that:
Since 2004 ‘Populus conducted an initial stakeholder perception audit, probing attitudes to the supermarket sector and the reputation of the company among stakeholders including MPs, civil servants, planning officials, unions, and NGOs including environmental, farming and disability groups.’
• Political decision-makers
• City opinion-formers
• Thought-leading journalists
• Sector specialists
• Key clients
• The increasingly influential NGO sector
They say they’re so good: “because our experience is not just in the field of research, but spans government, politics and the media as well, we know how to talk to key stakeholders in these worlds.” Of their modus operandi they say: “So we agree with our clients a ‘long list’ of the people whose attitudes really matter to them and we only interview names drawn from that list.” No point in talking to Joe Blow when you can get to Charlie Big Potatoes who might be calling the shots. The invisible helping hand of Populus can also take the form of an event where the Right Honourable Charlie Big Potatoes MP talks to an audience of your choosing for purposes of your own design, but more on this later. The point here is that Populus do not just gather this data and then look at it abstractly. Their aim is to shape and mould opinion as a result of their findings, they aim to change and influence specific minds to aid their client’s desire to make more money. Populus state clearly:
Having agreed the ‘long list’ of named individuals in key stakeholder categories, we invite people on the list to take part in either a one-to-one interview or a roundtable discussion held under the Chatham House Rule.
Andrew Cooper, the Director of Populus Limited was director of strategy for William Hague and these days gives ‘no-holds-barred advice’ to David Cameron. Cooper described the organisation’s methodology as somewhat political mélange, saying:
…since Populus was founded we’ve become an established brand for political and stakeholder research. The heritage of Populus combines experience of public policy research, government & politics with traditional market research disciplines.
We will return to Cooper’s connections later in the context of the Councils that oversee the survey lobbyists but retain our focus on Populus.
It is not just the Scottish Parliament where they ply this hybrid trade. Populus survey a ‘Panel’ consisting of more than 170 Westminster MPs to ascertain the political and regional attitudes on business issues. This Panel supposedly includes frontbenchers, rising stars and senior backbenchers from all parties and supposedly provides a real insight into the opinions of MPs ‘who matter.’ Presumably that means matter to Populus’ clients who want some form of contact with those who have a material influence on specific decision-making, albeit in a format which mimics some sort of academic conference. This is overtly stated as we seen above.
So Populus are paid to test the waters on how a company is perceived among MPs concerning specific campaigns and ‘targeted communications’, which may well take the initial form of a survey and then move towards modifications of various opinions as a result of it in these semi-secret meetings. Simultaneously, Populus’ survey results on specific issues could also be fed into their media partners in one of these familiar ‘a survey says story.’ The targeted communications are in one sense a reverse survey, whereby the position of any MP (or MSP) on specific issues could be accessed and then hopefully modified in the discreet confines of ‘Chatham House Rules,’ no doubt with reference to the coverage in the press and other persuasive techniques and inducements. But this type of subtle integration of survey (questioning) techniques is essentially the art of the lobbyist, and not the ‘objective’ somehow independent survey that one might assume it to be on first glance: the survey is part of a cycle we will explore later. But we do not really know the specifics of what is being said and done here, these are not areas of great public accountability or outside scrutiny: like the financial sector (who are key clients of the lobbyists here as we shall see), self-regulation dominates.
Another Populus non-executive Chairman is Rita Clifton who has been part of Interbrand, DMB&B, J. Walter Thompson and Saatchi & Saatchi during the agency’s 1980s heyday with Margaret Thatcher. Clifton’s most recent non-executive appointment is with EMAP plc. Clifton, in 2007, was appointed Visiting Professor at Henley Management College, which is where politicians are taken to be indoctrinated into the ethos of the ever-present business world. According to Clifton, in the PR world:
We do a lot of creative development, new names and new IDs, […] particularly in the wake of mergers and other corporate shake-ups. Diageo, formed from the merger of Guinness and Grand Met, was an especial success story. A new ID was crucial because ‘even though Guinness was a very strong brand name, it had very strong associations with that one drink. So Diageo created a new story and a new angle for that holding company — and frankly just signalled a fresh start in that company’s development.
‘You no longer know what you know,’ might well be the motto of the PR industry and this is the problem with this mind-bending counterfeit world. Her interview tells us that Clifton’s first accounts were with Harpic and Steradent, but imagine a lucrative contract comes in whereby the tastes of both those products are to be combined into a single product, say a soft drink or chewing gum: the Clifton genius kicks and something along the lines of ‘Ultra-cleen’ is then sold to us. When consumers fall ill the name is changed ‘New Ultra-cleen lite.’
Clifton says she sees the market as a voting machine (and presumably the voting machine (politics) as the market) and the market as nature. For Clifton: ‘People “vote” for brands with their purchases and their support;’ and although she believes it takes monumental incompetence to derail a long-nurtured and well-managed brand (say the Labour party), complacency is the enemy which necessitates the employment of a PR company:
If you’re not great, in product terms, or you’re too expensive or you’re rubbish at looking after the environment, people will find out about it. And the Darwinism in markets will crush you.
If only the Dodo and the Dinosaurs had done some market research. But PR is also about hiding the facts. The name of the game is not just this game of the names, certain forms of discourse must be shut down and others offered in their place as what might constitute the argument is controlled. Guinness had other very strong associations involving fraud: Ernest Saunders and Gerald Ronson’s convictions in legal trials, subsequent to the takeover of Distillers (the makers of Thalidomide) in 1986. Clifton’s job is to sublimate this type of thing. This type of thinking and activity is a contributory factor in the situation where, for instance, although there appeared to be a debate on alcohol in the Scottish parliament: there was no debate on alcohol. There was no discussion of it as an addictive drug for instance, not where it matters in decision-making fora, not where the lobbyist and pollster patrol to obfuscate the medical opinion: no free debate whereby those voices not controlled by the alcohol industry are given equal measure. There is a phoney debate, seemingly controlled by the alcohol industry; but this is part of the silence, and also part of the war on science that takes us back to the days when large marketing companies with accounts from the cigarette manufacturers aimed to control science, shape how we thought, and find ways to avoid any responsibility when people suffered.
Nick Mathiason, 2004, ‘A £1bn industry is accused of distorting results to produce what clients want to hear,’ The Observer, June 6, see: http://www.spinwatch.org.uk/-news-by-category-mainmenu-9/173-pr-industry/361-lies-damn-lies-and-opinion-polls
 Note Nye on Pre-White Paper public perceptions of Party energy policies in the context of UK Energy Review & the Nuclear Framework: political and regulatory contexts, see: http://www.westminsterenergy.org/Upload/2006-2008-public-events/20070314/Westminster_Energy_Mar_14th_brochure.pdf
 Agencies like Interbrand (owned by Omnicom) are probably best known for dreaming up new names for existing companies at extravagant costs.
 http://www.non-execs.com/events/NEDSeminar/agenda.asp?event=22 EMAP is a large specialist media venture which includes work with Local Government, see: http://www.emap.com/sectors/government/local-government-chronicle
 http://www.i-l-m.com/edge/6348.aspx A bit later in this interview, she adds another pseudo-Darwinian message: “Looking after small children is one of the things that I’m crap at. The important thing is that your child thinks you love them unconditionally. If they know that, then they will forgive you, or excuse you, for not being there all the time.”