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Bell Pottinger scandal shines harsh light on new-style PR

PR firm Bell Pottinger, found guilty by all parties, including the investigation it commissioned from a law firm, of engaging in unethical practices for the Gupta brothers in South Africa, has been drummed out of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) and told it can’t re-apply for five years.

PRCA director general Francis Ingham says: “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions and has received the harshest possible sanctions. The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”

The PRCA also says that Bell Pottinger’s campaign for the Guptas, which attacked supposedly “white monopoly capitalism” in South Africa to buttress their friend president Jacob Zuma, was likely to “likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa”.

25 per cent shareholder Chime Communications, owned by WPP and Providence Capital, is said by the Guardian to have offloaded its stake over the summer as the story broke. Former CEO James Henderson, who resigned over the weekend, is reckoned to be the biggest shareholder.

Bell Pottinger may or may not continue (it’s already lost a number of clients including Investec and Richemont) and the affair does the raise the wider question: should marketing communications groups, like the big holding companies, dabble in political PR and lobbying?

Chime could evidently see what was coming when it sold its stake: forensic examination by hacks and politicians, many of whom think they’ve been stitched up by such PR operators and who, in any case, can recognise a good story when they see one.

PR practitioners these days often say their job is “reputation management” which is all fine and dandy unless it’s blazingly apparent that the client in question doesn’t have what most of us would call a reputation to manage. But these tend to be the ones with the biggest budgets (the Guptas were paying Bell Pottinger £100,000 a month). Bell Pottinger’s motto is “Better Reputations. Better Results.”

In the Wild West of the internet it’s easy to go from massaging the truth to inventing it, something Bell Pottinger has been found guilty of in the past by doctoring its clients’ Wikipedia entries.

Bell Pottinger co-founder Lord Bell has always maintained that his job is to be an advocate, like a defence lawyer. If this means holding your nose, so be it.

It’s a point of view but it requires a fearsome combination of skill, cunning and, in Bell’s case charm, to manage if you want to stay out of the dock yourself. Bell resigned from Bell Pottinger last year, citing the Gupta account which he originally pitched for and won. He’s now formed a new outfit called Sans Frontieres.

Here he is on Newsnight, probably not one of his wiser choices.

There’ll be more.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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