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Bell Pottinger Crisis – A scandalous view from the bottom

Bell Pottinger Crisis – A scandalous view from the bottom

For as long as we can remember, our profession has strived to build a strong, stable and ethical reputation for itself. Only a few weeks ago, we blogged about our expectation that very soon, PRs will have secured a place for themselves in the boardroom.

So you can imagine our grave disappointment when the murky details of the Bell Pottinger scandal were fully revealed.

Billed as one of the UK’s leading PR agencies, it is a massively influential industry figure and as such, has the ability to cast both a positive and negative image of the profession – as one superhero once said, with great power comes great responsibility. In this case, the actions this major agency chose to take have proven to be so heinous, that the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), the trade body for the PR industry, has imposed its most serious sanction – full expulsion from the association for five years.

In its assessment of the case, the PRCA described Bell Pottinger as unethical and unprofessional, and accused them of bringing the industry into disrepute. So what did this ‘leading’ PR agency do to warrant the PRCA’s most unprecedented punishment?

Paid £100,000 per month by Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Gupta family, Bell Pottinger undertook an unethical PR campaign, including the creation of a social media campaign, that stoked racial tensions in South Africa. According to some reports, Bell Pottinger is considered responsible for orchestrating the creation of numerous fake Twitter accounts to target prominent white business people in South Africa, in order to draw attention away from the Gupta family and their businesses.

Every PR professional worth their salt knows that reputation is at the heart of what we do – indeed it is the essence of PR – so how could one of the industry’s largest and most well-established agencies have fallen so far on their own sword and what can we learn from it?

Be picky
Although this client campaign carried big bucks, sometimes it’s more important to protect your organisation’s reputation and follow the principles and standards set out by your industry body, rather than simply to follow the big accounts. As a business, it’s critical to establish your ethos, your personality and what you stand for – once you’ve done that, commit to working with companies that share and reflect that vision.

While some activity may well be legal, doesn’t make it moral. In this case, where the majority of ethical PR agencies would have seen the Oakbay account – regardless of retainer fee – as competing with their moral principles, and those of the PRCA, Bell Pottinger proved themselves to seemingly not care about the consequences of their actions, either for the South African people, or for the global PR profession as a whole.

Leading from the top
The beleaguered agency has openly dismissed a number of employees for their involvement in the scandal, and this week saw the resignation of CEO James Henderson. However, he didn’t leave before implying that, had he known exactly what activity was being delivered for the Oakbay account, the leadership team would have intervened.

While hindsight can be a great thing, in this case, it is absolutely not applicable. It isn’t by chance senior leadership teams become aware of their team’s activity, it’s by insistence. Every manager, from account directors through to CEOs, should be fully aware at all times of what their teams are delivering for clients, not least because they are ultimately accountable for what is delivered, but also because they are the ones who influence the team and set the tone for the entire agency. So it is completely unacceptable for Henderson to use a lack of awareness as his defence.

Practice what you preach
‘We help shape our clients’ reputations…’; that’s the start of Bell Pottinger’s strapline however, as PR Week reported in breaking news last night (7th September), the agency is expected to fall into administration on Monday – a shocking example of living and dying by its own sword. But in all honesty, the outcome came as no real surprise to us here at Firework – once a company has proven themselves to be unethical, immoral and lost all credibility and trust – as well as the majority of their clients – even good PR would be hard pressed to turn its fortunes around.

As PR pros, we are here to establish and protect our clients’ reputations so it’s absolutely critical to build and maintain your own, after all, you wouldn’t choose a dentist whose teeth were decaying!

The reality is, as PR professionals, our work, our image and our reputation are our products – it’s what we sell; if we cannot protect our own, what trust or credibility could we possibly achieve convincing clients that we could do it for them?

Sadly, the short-term fallout of this terrible event will affect all of the decent, hardworking staff of Bell Pottinger who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves part of a dishonourable and disgraced agency that simply does not reflect the true PR industry the rest of us have worked hard to build. That said, as a sector, we are resilient and here at Firework, we are confident that for those employees who have played no role in this affair, they will continue to make a positive contribution to our industry.

While the Bell Pottinger scandal has rocked the global PR landscape, the PRCA was absolutely right to take such strong, swift action; as an industry, we have worked so hard for many years to build a solid reputation for ourselves and our sector association needed to protect us as we do our clients.

Now is the time to unite and show the world that there is no place for unethical or immoral PR actions – as a profession, we deserve the respect the majority of our hardworking peers have earned.

Posted: 8 September 2017

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