What can we learn from the Bell Pottinger scandal?

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One of the UK’s largest PR agencies has been hit by a huge scandal and thrown out of the PRCA following its now infamous work in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger has become only the second agency in the past 10 years to be thrown out and the company has now been placed into administration.

The statement released by the PRCA was very damning: “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions. The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”

The firm will not be eligible to reapply for five years. On first reading, the verdict seems extremely reasonable to me but I’ll let you make your own decision.

What exactly happened?

Bell Pottinger was involved in a secret PR and social media campaign in South Africa on behalf of Oakbay, a company owned by the controversial Gupta family which has close ties to President Jacob Zumba. The campaign involved stirring up racial tension in South Africa using both traditional and social media, including a fake blog and Twitter account. Bell Pottinger’s aim was to target wealthy white South African individuals and corporations to draw attention away from the Gupta family and its apparent links to President Zuma.

What has been the fall out?

Since its work with Oakbay has been revealed things have gone from bad to worse for Bell Pottinger. As you might expect in our industry, reputation is everything and once word got out clients rapidly started dropping Bell Pottinger – Waitrose was one of the first to publicly denounce them when they announced they were looking for a replacement. Clydesdale Bank, HSBC and TalkTalk are among others to have stopped working with the firm in the wake of the scandal.

It’s not just clients that are jumping ship either, the Middle East arm of Bell Pottinger has announced that it is in talks to separate from the disgraced PR firm. While the company hasn’t yet found a buyer, there is no doubt that it will be better off without the Bell Pottinger brand.

Bell Pottinger wasn’t able to stop the rot and collapsed into administration when it couldn’t find a buyer.

What lessons can we learn?

  1. Use ethical tactics. The problem was not that Bell Pottinger took the account in the first place, it was the tactics that they used. Creating a campaign to stir up racial hate was wholly unethical and this should never be an option.
  2. Surround yourself with good people. It is unlikely that everybody at Bell Pottinger knew what was going on but everyone who works there will now be tarred by the same brush. Make sure your company is filled with great people who are unlikely to make wrong decisions.
  3. Always think about your reputation. A brand’s reputation can take years, or even decades, to build but only a second to destroy.
  4. One mistake can prove costly. Employing over 250 people Bell Pottinger is one of the best-known PR firms in the UK but even its expert team of PR professionals was not able to get them out of the mess that the Oakbay scandal caused.

It’s very sad to see the demise of such a great powerhouse within the industry but it serves as a timely warning to the rest of us that we should always be careful with our reputation.

Do you think Bell Pottinger has been treated fairly? Has there ever been a situation where you’ve made a mistake and had to salvage your reputation?

One thing is for sure I think we’ll be staying away from any politically motivated campaign opportunities in South Africa…


Post by Finlay Magowan, Media and PR Manager

Image by chapmanlam_cm

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