Atos don’t provide medical assessments for disabled people needing to claim support: they provide ‘functional’ assessments, as ‘disability analysts’, who ‘focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t.’
I wrote an article recently, which was published by Welfare Weekly, about the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments.
The editor of Welfare Weekly, Steven Preece, forwarded an email to me regarding my article, marked ‘high importance’. It said:
Subject: Atos FAO Sue Jones
Please could you ask Sue Jones to give me a quick ring on 0141 221 0707 re the article in the link below. We represent Atos and I’d like to have a quick chat about a couple of point in the article which are inaccurate.
Apologies for the email but I couldn’t find any numbers to call Sue directly.
Firstly, having been through 3 Atos assessments and a subsequent tribunal, I think it’s absolutely priceless to be lectured about ‘inaccuracies’ from a ‘representative’ of Atos.
Secondly, I never ring people I don’t know, regardless of the reasons they may give me to do so. I did some research regarding who the person that wants to contact me actually is.
The email was from someone working with a PR company called 3X1. Atos are one of their clients. Lindsay McGarvie was political editor at the Sunday Mail, and reporter for the Daily Mail, before moving into PR in 2005. He’s now a director of 3X1.
So, the director of Atos’s PR company wants to discuss my articles that are critical of Atos. The one in question was written while I watched the work and pensions select committee’s evidence session, then I read two articles in the Mirror. I wonder if Mr McGarvie has contacted the Mirror, too. After all, their two articles on the inquiry combined said pretty much the same as mine.
According to his LinkedIn profile, McGarvie’s specialisms include:
– Strategic public affairs counsel
– Reputation management
– Devising and implementing proactive PR and public affairs campaigns
– Media Training
– Digital communications
PR practitioners build and protect the reputation of their clients, whether they are individuals or organisations. Companies whose profits or reputation have been damaged can claim for ‘defamation’. Non-trading corporations can also claim where they can prove that their fiscal situation has been affected, or their property damaged. However, Atos’s reputation was damaged long before my article was written. That is because of widespread criticism of their ethics, standards and performance, not because of writers such as me.
3X1 is not the only PR company referring visitors to read my articles.
PR is concerned with persuasion, selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.
Edelman Intelligence and Westbourne, for example, are engaged in rebuttal campaigns and multimedia astroturfing projects to protect corporate interests:
“Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.” From The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government
Edelman Intelligence is among the world’s largest PR companies and either their staff or their clients have been quietly visiting my own WordPress site over this last year, the link shows they were referred to my site from Edelman’s own social media monitoring command centre. I’ve contacted the company to ask why, but have yet to receive a response. I’m not a paying client so it’s highly unlikely that the visits are in connection with promoting my best interests.
Cision are another PR company that provide social media ‘monitoring’ and I have had visits to my site from theirs. The company offers three web-based packages: the ‘CisionMarketing Suite’, the ‘Public Relations Suite’ and a ‘Government Relations and Political Action Committee Suite’. The Cision ‘Public Relations Suite’ allows users to distribute press releases, access a database of bloggers and journalists, and monitor and analyze news and social media sites. Designing responses to influential critical voices and general ‘image management’ is one of the things that PR is all about.
The company’s ‘Government Relations Suite’ manages government contacts, analyzes lobbying activity, facilitates communication with elected officials and provides PAC compliance software for filing reports to the FEC and state elections commissions (US).
Some PR organisations claim that critical bloggers are ‘bullies’:
“I often wonder what it is about social media that makes people anti-social. Perhaps the empty dialogue box creates a discomfort similar to silence in a crowded room. Maybe it is the need for instant gratification and peer recognition that comes from outing a company’s poor service. Or, it could be that the Internet provides a safe venue for bullies to vent with minimal repercussions. Whatever the reason, people talking badly about companies create a lot of drama and headaches for corporate leaders.”
As a public interest writer with a strong interest in social justice, equality, imbalances of power relationships, policy, human rights and as a strong advocate of democracy, I believe that ‘outing’ a company’s poor service is necessary to prevent citizens from suffering distress and harm and to hold those with power to account. I’m not motivated by profit – I don’t earn anything from my work. However, I’m motivated by a strong sense of ethical duty and solidarity with my fellow citizens. I want to see big businesses (and governments, for that matter) act in a socially responsible manner. I think it’s a reasonable public expectation that companies actually earn their profits by providing a service which does not cause harm to anyone.
My experience of ‘bullying’ comes from the other direction, from the top down – from powerful business groups and organisations that simply want to silence lone critical voices. Now THAT is bullying. Furthermore, our responses to being bullied are also being micromanaged.
Calling critics ‘bullies’ is a PR stunt in itself.
It’s an oppressive tactic commonly used (by bullies) over recent years by those in positions of power, from the top down.
I won’t apologise for writing critical articles or holding my informed opinions. I always research and produce evidence throughout the articles I write. That’s not to say I never make mistakes. However, if there is an injustice being done, I will say so.
And I will keep on saying so.
I have written more than one critical article about government policy aimed at cutting the lifeline support of disabled people, and of Atos, who are employed by the state to implement the cuts via the Work Capability Assessment. Because there is a significant and catastrophically damaging injustice being done to disabled people.
Last year, the United Nations verified that the UK government have systematically violated the rights of disabled people. Resistance to the injustice of austerity cuts that are targeted at disabled people disproportionately – and among them, at some of our most vulnerable citizens – begins at the raw, weary and often fearful front lines of those impacted first and impacted the hardest: disabled people.
Disabled people have been forced to pay nine times more than the average citizen to reduce the budget deficit and people with high or complex support needs have been forced to pay 19 times more. From the despotic Bedroom Tax, cuts to Employment and Support Allowance and the closing of the Independent Living Fund, it has been a relentless political assault on one of the most disadvantaged social groups.
The government have contracted private companies to deliver the cuts.
The UK has become the first country in the world to use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities to be investigated for ‘grave and systemic violations’ of disabled peoples’ rights and it is telling that the government has since denied the findings of the inquiry, refused to make public the findings and refused to listen to the accounts of disabled citizens.
I was among those involved in contacting the United Nations in 2012 and have submitted evidence regularly since, regarding the impact of government policies on disabled people.
Atos have played a part in these events and have made a hefty profit from their role. No amount of PR work will convince me that Atos have disabled people’s best interests at heart. I have experienced 3 assessments delivered by Atos, myself. I was told I was ‘fit for work’ after I had taken the painful decision to leave a profession that I loved because I was much too unwell to work. I then had to face a Tribunal. The stress of that exacerbated my illness. I won the appeal. However within 3 months following the successful Tribunal I was sent by the Department for Work and Pensions for another Atos assessment. I collapsed during the subsequent interview. Even the doctor whocarried out the re-assessment stated that I should never have been made to go through it gain so soon after winning my appeal. It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of ordeal is unintended.
People have died within a short time after being told they are fit for work. They clearly weren’t. My friend and fellow campaigner Karen Sherlock is among those people who are simultaneously ‘fit for work’ and dead. She died in fear and despair because the system failed her – because a cruel government refused to listen and powerful men and women refused to act.
My friend Lottie Ryan had a brain tumour. The Department for Work and Pensions sent her a letter demanding that she attend a work related interview or face having her lifeline support cut. She couldn’t even feed herself at this point in time because of the advanced stage of her cancer. She was dying, but that didn’t stop the government from trying to coerce her into work. Now THAT is more than bullying. It’s despotic, savage state persecution.
There are many more disabled citizens’ accounts like these.
I don’t need repressive tactics or ‘reputation management’ strategies flung at me. My aim (and that of many other fellow campaigners) is to ensure that people recognise the systematic political oppression of some social groups in the UK. It’s real. Disabled people are living in fear of a bureaucratic brown envelope arriving through their letterbox. They live in fear every time the government claims they want to ‘help’ and ‘support’ them into work – by cutting their lifeline support even further.
So, I will continue to criticise. I will continue to speak out and to do my best to raise public awareness of what is happening in what was once a civilised and democratic society.
I’m far from alone. Atos have been the subject of widespread criticism in the media, among campaign groups, charities, the National Audit Office, Atos ex-employees and whistle blowers, and opposition MPs. Must be hard work having to contact all of those people about ‘inaccuracies’.
If I’ve made a couple of points that are ‘inaccurate’, then there is a comments section beneath the article in question to accommodate some transparent debate and dialogue. Leave your comment and evidence there, Mr McGarvie.
My phone number is reserved for my friends, family and people who I trust not to intimidate me.
I have had four visits to my site today originating from Edelman Intelligence. I know this because on my site’s stats page, referrers are listed, such as Facebook, Twitter, search engines and so on. You can click on the link provided and it shows you were site visitors have come from.
Additionally, a listed app called meltwater showed up. Outside Insight is Meltwater’s Media Intelligence and Social Media Monitoring tool. Their site describes this service: ‘PR professionals lean on Meltwater’s product suite to help them boost their brand’s position and demonstrate their ROI (Return on Investment).
One of the most valuable things that legitimate criticism tells companies is that they have an audience that cares. The worst outcome in public relations isn’t mismanaging criticism or anger; it’s apathy and indifference. Criticism tells you that something is wrong, if you have enough visibility to warrant feedback.
It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that PR is located within local, social, political, cultural, economic and historical contexts. PR approaches often lack critical thinking and analysis needed to improve ethics and societal impact.
Companies need to understand and listen to audiences as well as evaluate the results of campaigns, in order to identify more ethical, sustainable and socially beneficial ways of practising public relations. However, in the UK, there are few regulations that govern PR firms. That is why public feedback is so important.
In democracies, publics need and demand information about what companies, organisations and governments are doing. Inequities in power and influence, lack of transparency, or negative or harmful societal impacts affect every citizen, potentially.
However, provided it is conducted ethically, public relations may be a legitimate part of free speech which fosters diversity of viewpoints and facilitates democratic dialogue in society.
In short, PR companies and their clients need to listen to ordinary citizens like you and me, rather than simply refusing to accept a viewpoint. One of the most oppressive tactics that has arisen this past few years is the now habitual political dismissal of citizens’ experiences and accounts, as ‘anecdotal evidence’ of the harm that government policies are inflicting on people. Instead of denying the experiences of others, and engaging in techniques of neutralisation, the corporate sector and government need to engage with us using an open and dialogic approach to resolving the growing conflict of interest presented by the private sector profit incentive and the need for ensuring public safety and democratic inclusion.
I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help if you like, by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.