Arun Sudhaman 07 Sep 2017 // 1:15PM GMT
The irony, perhaps, is that Lord Bell's departure was supposed to herald Bell Pottinger's transformation into a safer, more conventional corporate PR firm. After all, this was the agency that made its name at the murkier end of the geopolitical spectrum, unapologetically representing controversial regimes in such countries as Belarus, Bahrain and Sri Lanka.
That line of work meant that Bell Pottinger itself, rather than just the firm’s clients, often attracted its own share of unsavoury headlines. Bell, firmly established in the PR constellation as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite spinner, rarely betrayed any concern about this prospect — even if he was quick to plead his innocence. When the firm was caught on camera in 2011 promising to apply the ‘dark arts’ to a Wikipedia page, Bell suggested he was a victim of poor journalism. By then, though, his partners and employees had begun to tire of the negative publicity Bell Pottinger invariably seemed to attract.
None more so, it seemed, than James Henderson, a financial PR specialist who had sold his own firm to Bell Pottinger in 2010. By 2012, Henderson was helping to lead Bell Pottinger’s MBO from Chime, emerging as the controlling shareholder and promising that the firm was set to turn over a new leaf — behaving more like a modern PR agency than a relic of another era, one that was fast disappearing.
For the most part, that was what happened. Bell Pottinger rebranded, started talking about digital marketing in a manner that didn’t scare anyone and resumed its relatively orthodox progress as one of the UK’s largest PR firms. But its geopolitical practice continued to lurk in the margins, until Henderson and Bell’s relationship deteriorated to the point when — in August 2016 — Bell was ultimately forced out of the firm he founded 30 years earlier.
It was not an amicable split, but it appeared to confirm that — once and for all — Bell Pottinger was leaving the political intrigue behind. Instead, the final act in this saga was prompted before Bell’s exit, when the firm made the fateful decision to start representing the controversial Gupta family, itself accused of 'capturing' the government of President Zuma, a charge that was later confirmed.
Whoever made that decision — and everyone involved, including Bell and Henderson, are at pains to absolve themselves from responsibility — was no doubt lured by the fees on offer, a healthy £100k per month. It is the kind of pragmatic calculation that many firms in their position will make, weighing the potential for controversy against whether the assignment's goals are realistic, and the fees sufficiently high.
Bell Pottinger presumably concluded that, rather than demur, those risks were worth taking, despite the removal of relevant political specialists that accompanied Lord Bell's exit. Yet, the campaign that followed clearly proved otherwise — with Bell Pottinger ultimately disgraced for developing a narrative that sought to portray Zuma's opponents as agents of 'white monopoly capital,” in a shameless attempt to manipulate a fragile national psyche.
Just two months ago, I wrote “if any agency can survive such reputational damage it is likely to be Bell Pottinger.” Yet even this firm’s teflon aura, forged from happily going where other firms feared to tread, proved insufficiently resilient — weakened by the departures of key staff, hampered by a toxic culture, bereft of allies and fatally undermined by the torrent of criticism that has engulfed the agency since it chose to insert itself into such a volatile scenario.
If accepting the brief was a poor decision, then continuing with it represented a remarkable lapse of judgement on Bell Pottinger's part, especially given the level of oversight that such a major account should have attracted from the firm’s senior executives. Rather than jettisoning its geopolitical activities, Bell Pottinger chose to double down — staffing the assignment with capital markets executives in what proved to be a disastrous misjudgment.
Meanwhile, South Africans — angered by the cynical attempt to deploy racial inequality as a campaign tactic — were mobilising, in the kind of perfect storm that represents the visceral power of the social media era.
Five years ago, you could argue, Bell Pottinger would have weathered this scandal. In fact, the firm has probably navigated its way through much worse. But plenty has changed. Citizens and civil society groups are empowered. News travels fast. Clients are far less likely to give their agencies the benefit of the doubt. And employees want to work for companies that reflect the values they hold.
Thankfully, the PR industry has not been immune to this disruption either. Trade associations were once best-known for their lack of intestinal fortitude, but this week the PRCA bucked that convention by expelling Bell Pottinger from its ranks, after a five-hour hearing in front of its Professional Practices Committee. PR firms are increasingly aware of the virtues of conscientious client selection, alongside the importance of walking away from ethically dubious mandates.
Ketchum cut ties with Russia; Weber Shandwick split with Egypt; and Edelman distanced itself from climate deniers. Ethics committees abound, and culture is no longer just an euphemism for the drinks trolley. All of which explains why Richard Edelman, whose own firm has hardly proved immune to ethical issues in the past, described Bell Pottinger’s expulsion as a ‘proud moment’ for the PR industry.
Yet it would be wrong to blithely imagine that the Bell Pottinger scandal is all good news for the PR industry. Even if we can applaud the PRCA’s decisiveness, the association is a subscription body, rather than a professional regulator with the power to to stop members practising. Whether licensing is required remains an ongoing debate, but right now the only real sanction is the “red flag” that one client called forth in explaining to me why he sacked Bell Pottinger after the PRCA decision.
Meanwhile, Bell Pottinger’s perilous missteps constitute ammunition for broader media attacks on the ethics of the PR agency industry in general. Once again, the industry contends with making the front pages for all the wrong reasons — and, to the extent that the general public considers the PR industry at all, this affair is likely to confirm their worst assumptions.
Neither can we pretend that sensitive public relations assignments are a thing of a past. Even worse, as one corporate communicator mentioned to me today, there are several companies and governments across the world that would look favourably upon the kind of work Bell Pottinger carried out for the Guptas, despite its patent failure. These kinds of temptations, and the big paydays they often represent, remain a critical risk for the PR industry's overall reputation.
My colleague Paul Holmes has written at length about how ethical PR work can be undertaken for controversial clients (while avoiding the converse, of course), and the industry should not shy away from making this case. It will not be easy, but the fake news era demands honesty about this kind of work — if that proves too uncomfortable, then it would appear the assignment is not worth taking on.
Remember, the clients that hired Bell Pottinger are still in business, shedding few tears for the fate of the firm they once employed. Sacrificing Bell Pottinger will not address South Africa’s deep-rooted racial and economic malaise. It should be a cautionary tale for every PR agency, and for every client considering who it works with.
Bell Pottinger, of course, appear to have learned these lessons far too late, if at all. Investors and clients are deserting a business that raked in $50m in revenue less than one year ago. It is not a pretty sight, but probably a necessary one. Otherwise the PR industry’s palpable sense of relief over the fate of Bell Pottinger will prove to be more of a pyrrhic victory than a pivotal moment.