Chances are we wouldn’t be writing this post had British PR firm Bell Pottinger’s demise yesterday remained a story limited to Europe and Africa.
Unfortunately for the reputation of the PR industry here and abroad, Bell Pottinger was well known, which helped spread the story.
The Bell in Bell Pottinger is Lord Bell, Tim to his friends, described as Margaret Thatcher’s favorite PR pro. He’s known for "reputation laundering," a potentially lucrative business that provides counsel to dictators and other clients who can be described as controversial. Bell Pottinger’s roster included clients such as Oscar Pistorius and the wife of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
The scandal that broke Bell Pottinger raised slime to new heights and brought crisis management to new lows. In 2016 the firm took on an ethically questionable client, the Gupta family of South Africa. It then compounded things by crafting a social media campaign whose goal was to exploit racial tension in South Africa to further its client’s agenda. Details of the campaign, in the form of internal documents, leaked and the scandal began in April.
It’s not as if there weren’t warning signs. The slime factor with the Gupta account was so high that even Lord Bell counseled against taking it. Bell Pottinger didn’t listen and eventually won the $170,000/month contract in summer 2016. Lord Bell resigned from the firm not long after that. He formed another firm and once again welcomed what could be described as controversial clients.
Move ahead a few months and you had a case of "PR firm, heal thyself." Unfortunately Bell Pottinger did a poor job of crisis management and, yes, reputation laundering.
Bits and pieces of information about the social media campaign leaked for months starting in April, providing flammable material for journalists. In addition, Bell Pottinger refused to apologize until this past July. Earlier the firm said it was being framed. It re-upped the Gupta contract in April 2017.
As Katie Paine wrote about Bell Pottinger in PR News, July 27, 2017, “PR counselors long have argued that ethics are critical and apologies, honesty and transparency are the best cures in a crisis. It’s a bit mind-boggling when one of the world’s leading PR firms ignores its own advice.”
Paine continued, “Bell Pottinger bills itself as a leading 'internal reputation management agency,' but somehow forgot to manage its own rep. It’s hard to know whether the root cause was sheer greed or an absence of ethics.”
The fatal blow occurred last week, when the U.K.’s PR trade group, the Public Relations and Communications Association, released an independent report that blasted Bell Pottinger and its Gupta campaign. The report was seen as a referendum on Bell Pottinger and an attempt to bolster the damaged reputation of Britain's PR industry. The day before the report was released, Bell Pottinger’s CEO, James Henderson, stepped down.
Things continued to spiral. Large clients, including British banking giant HSBC, fled the firm; and Bell Pottinger subsidiaries in foreign countries sought to cut ties with the mother ship. Yesterday Bell Pottinger’s British operations halted.
Obviously the Bell Pottinger scandal exposes people to a part of PR's business that most PR pros would rather be kept quiet. In addition, the implications for firms conducting PR on behalf of questionable clients in an age of social media seem obvious.
Ironically it's PRSA’s Ethics Month here in the U.S. PRSA chief communicator Laura Kane tells us “agreeing to the Code of Ethics is an important part of PRSA membership and something that we reference regularly in our communication to members.” As such PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards developed a series of posts around the code and the importance of ethical behavior, she adds.
In addition, PRSA is hosting a Twitter chat with the Society of Professional Journalists Sept. 25, 4 pm ET, called “Truth in Communications.” All are welcome, she says.
—Seth Arenstein, editor, PR News @skarenstein