THE FALL OF BELL POTTINGER IS A LESSON TO BE EMBRACED
One of the first rules of public relations is never become the story and yet some big players in the modern communications industry seems hell-bent on breaking it. Up to recently, it’s been mainly individuals who have strayed from influencing the narrative to forming it: Andy Coulson, Alastair Campbell, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci spring to mind.
Part of the reason is their ‘big-player’ status. They are (or were) public figures with bellicose idiosyncrasies so naturally came under the scrutiny of a sharped-penned press. So, as soon as they gaffed or were seen to wield undue influence, they were exposed and vulnerable.
The latest dark cloud to blow over the communications industry is, however, more menacing. Individuals come and go but the exposure, humbling and potential collapse of one of the biggest comms agencies in the world needs greater analysis.
If the press is to be believed, UK firm Bell Pottinger is close to collapse after it was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association at the beginning of September for “bringing the PR and communications industry into disrepute”. The company's work on the campaign for Oakbay Capital, a South African company owned by the wealthy and controversial Gupta family, was accused of inciting racial hatred.
The allegations reportedly stemmed from leaked emails that suggested Bell Pottinger had worked with Oakbay to create a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population”. Bell Pottinger was accused of stirring up anger about “white monopoly capital” in South Africa and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns.
There is a lot more detail to be found on the internet but, in essence, Bell Pottinger took on a high-risk, politically exposed client and paid the price. For the hard-working comms professional who is proud of their work, this is a real blow – no one likes to see their industry sullied in this way.
Bell Pottinger may survive or die and the media focus will move elsewhere but it is important to draw lessons from this worldwide scandal.
The first is that the business of precise, meaningful and convincing communications will always be important because it is how the world goes round.
The second is that representing a client and creating honest messages are not mutually exclusive. Communications in a capitalist economy should be akin to a vibrant marketplace – with traders selling their wares in the most convincing and attention-grabbing way they can. It is Billingsgate with a bit more science.
Thirdly, comms agencies should have an ethical charter or code of ethics that proscribes messaging that could be logically interpreted as discriminatory, hurtful or false.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations has its own conduct which can be followed or used as a good template. It says that comms professionals should:
a) maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct;
b) deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public;
c) respect, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practise;
d) uphold the reputation of, and do nothing that would bring into disrepute, the public relations profession or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations;
e) respect and abide by this Code and related Notes of Guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and ensure that others who are accountable to them (e.g. subordinates and sub-contractors) do the same;
f) encourage professional training and development among members of the profession in order to raise and maintain professional standards generally.
It’s a good start point and there is plenty of more information on the CIPR website.
The fall of Bell Pottinger will damage the communications industry’s reputation but it will continue to flourish because people have always responded to messages and always will. We have to learn from this unfortunate episode to reset the standard and show that we are simply honest brokers in the busy marketplace of life.