Why did it take so long to expose Bell Pottinger?


You could be crushed in the stampede of eager PR types praising the PRCA‘s decision to throw PR firm, Bell Pottinger out of the club because of its work on a campaign for Oakbay Capital, a South African company owned by the wealthy Gupta family. The PRCA found the campaign had “incited racial hatred”.

For the record, it was clear, decisive stuff from the body which regulates the public relations industry; but why did it take them so long to notice that this agency had a questionable client list and even more questionable tactics?

Were those of us who work in the industry seduced by the Svengali-type figure of Lord Tim Bell, who has dined out on his reputation as “Mrs Thatcher’s Favourite PR Man”  for a generation. That reputation was all but destroyed in a BBC Newsnight interview with Kirsty Walk, where (aside from his mobile going off, twice – some media training, Tim?) his line to take was: “don’t blame me, guv”.  Except, Lord Bell, you and the agency you founded both have form.

Here’s a client list of shame:

  • Saudi Arabia;
  • The government of Sri Lanka;
  • FW de Klerk, opponent of Nelson Mandela, de Klerk ran for president of South Africa;
  • Thaksin Shinawatra, thrown out as Thai premier;
  • Asma al-Assad, the wife of the president of Syria;
  • Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus;
  • Rebekah Brooks after the phone-hacking scandal broke;
  • previous, repressive governments of Bahrain and Egypt;
  • the US occupying administration in Iraq;
  • the polluting oil company Trafigura;
  • the fracking company Cuadrilla;
  • the athlete Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murder;
  • the Pinochet Foundation during its campaign against the former Chilean dictator’s British detention;
  • the heavily criticised arms giant BAE Systems.

We’re going back well over ten years with some of these clients; whether it’s guns, oil, fracking or despots, Tim can sort it out for you. Frankly, we – as an industry – chose to ignore it. The man famous for the fixed ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster campaign in the 1970s, is no longer working for Bell Pottinger. He resigned last Summer, citing the firm’s work with the Gupta family as beyond the pale. As David Byrne said: “people use irony as a defence mechanism.”

For Lord Bell, for Bell Pottinger, for the wider corporate communications industry, PR isn’t working.

It would be tempting to sit back, continue to applaud the PRCA and invoke the old adage: one bad apple and so on. That’s not good enough. This PR firm has been caught, other big operators are involved with questionable regimes, with global conglomerates who are more interested in hiding truth, than having an open debate.

I’m calling on the PRCA and CIPR to hold a joint inquiry into the practise of corporate public relations. This part of our industry needs to restore its own reputation, before it can continue to legitimately dispense reputation advice to others.

Gary Rae FRSA, is a senior communications and campaigns strategist https://www.linkedin.com/in/garyrae01/


The emotional state of Mrs May


A lesson for all leaders

It was a simple question posed by the senior political correspondent for Sky News, Beth Rigby: “How are you feeling, Mrs May…?”

You might have thought she would have at least said: “a bit tired”, or, “I’ve had better days”. You know, something, human-like. Instead, we got this: “What I’m feeling, is that there is a job to be done.” Maybot strikes again. Reaction, on Twitter was swift. This, from Jess Phillips MP, was typical.

Jess Philips MP

Her lack of emotional intelligence will be her downfall – arguably, has already been her downfall. I predict she’ll be out of office, by the end of the month, not just because she wiped out a Tory majority at a totally unnecessary general election (costing us, the taxpayer, around £130m), but also because of how she has conducted herself since 9th June. Failing to acknowledge the division in the country, when she spoke outside No. 10, after duping HM The Queen that she had done a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, and could, therefore, form a government. Failure to communicate with her MPs who lost their seats. Failure to see, and respond accordingly, to the uncertainty she has created.

Something resembling a sixth-sense is a necessary attribute for effective leadership, and not just in politics. Having a tin ear, will, eventually, expose those with power. Bad leaders, think leadership is about control, when it’s actually about consensus. They confuse direction with dictating, and they often resort to bullying when even they know they have lost the backing of those they lead. It’s not that people don’t want to be led, they do. They often will their leaders to change, to improve. Mrs May’s former communications director said she had to beg the PM to do media interviews. Senior directors surrounding business leaders, or trustees supporting chief executives in the third sector, have a duty to feedback, honestly, when it’s going wrong. It’s not easy, given that tin ear will be flapping, noisily in the breeze, deaf to all who bellow into it.

An inability to communicate, either with the media, or your own staff/constituents, really ought to preclude you from high office. Sadly, it doesn’t. Mrs May was the accidental PM. Some of our charity leaders are accidental CEOs, not least because they founded their own organisations and have hung around for far too long. This is eloquently covered in an anonymous blog in Guardian Voluntary Sector Network

Those, like me, who have serious concerns about their leader, must keep up the pressure on them to adapt or move on. Sometimes, that’s not always possible to do from within the organisation. The truth is, those without any emotional intelligence, or those displaying malignant narcissism are probably unable to adapt. In politics, they can be voted out, eventually. In business, shareholders are becoming increasingly vocal. What of the third sector? Strong and stable boards, to coin a phrase, are vital in holding a chief executive to account.  Trustees must continue – or in some cases start – to ask probing questions, not just of the chief executive but other staff, especially those ‘on the ground’. Some worry that that’s interfering in operational matters. It isn’t. Call it 360° feedback to the CEO. That will help the many, not the few, who may well be struggling with ineffective leadership, whether around the cabinet room or boardroom.


With a snap election it’s time for charities to put up, not shut up

The prime minister surprised many in calling for a general election on 8th June. As a former civil servant, I know that all government departments are now in “lockdown” or election “purdah”, essentially not making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives or administrative and legislative changes) which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. Incidentally, this applies to local government and council elections as well as general elections. Essentially, civil servants and local government officers zip their lips.

What’s less well understood is that those of us who work in the third sector are also governed as to what we should say during elections. A timely reminder from the Charity Commission, updated in February this year, sets out, in detail, how charities should conduct themselves during an election period. Regardless of elections, it is the case, as the Commission puts it, that the guiding principle of charity law in terms of elections is that charities must be, and be seen to be, independent from party politics”. The Commission is absolutely right to say that the independent nature of our sector is critically important in maintaining and gaining public support; arguably, something we’ve not been that good at, of late.

What’s bothering me, in the current climate of distrust of some charities, (and I don’t want to overstate that) is the temptation to be over-cautious, to over interpret the Commission’s guidance – to simply shut up until the election is over. Having read the election guidance, again, and the accompanying Speaking Out: Guidance on campaigning and political activities by charities, I see nothing there that ought to mute our campaigning voice. Indeed, in section 3.1 (just to prove I have read it), it asks the question: Can a charity carry out campaigning and political activity. The short answer: Yes – any charity can become involved in campaigning and in political activity which further or support its charitable purposes, unless its governing document prohibits it.

This is surely the time to shout louder? Or, as I would have said as a former spin doctor, increase our share of voice. This is the time, right now, to set out your stall, to challenge those in power and those who seek power. If we are worried about the public perception of charities, that is nothing to how the public view politicians. I believe that we have a duty, as charity campaigners, to present our case in a creative a way as possible; backed by evidence, experience and first-hand witness. If you can only make your case by aligning with one political party, then that is not only wrong in charity law, it’s a pretty dumb communications strategy.

I am of the view that most of the politicians I have met, go into politics to attempt to make the world a better place. That said, there are too many of our fellow citizens who feel disheartened and disenfranchised by our elected politicians and The System.

Who speaks for them? Who fights their battles? We do. Elections ought to be a call to arms for charities.

To the barricades, or at least, the airwaves.