Why did it take so long to expose Bell Pottinger?

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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/

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