Bath Business Blog: Joanna Randall, managing director, Purplefish. What the Bell Pottinger story can teach us about reputation

September 11, 2017

International PR agency Bell Pottinger – or Bell Rottinger, as it is now being referred to – has had a pretty rough ride over the past few months, culminating last week in being booted out of industry trade body the PRCA for the next five years.

But what happened? How does a global PR player, which sells itself on its mastery of reputation management, become the story? 

And what has emerged is a story surrounded by intrigue, ego and speculation – and which has uncovered some pretty unethical working practices and unacceptable sentiments.

It has its roots in Bell Pottinger’s £1.2m-a-year contract from the wealthy South African Gupta family, which it won in January 2016.

The firm is alleged to have breached numerous ethical and industry best practice guidelines including doctoring Wikipedia and engineering a social media campaign designed to stoke racial hatred.

The agency has been vilified for coining terms such as ‘economic apartheid’ and ‘white monopoly capital’ in its messaging intended to deflect attention away from corruption claims levied at President Jacob Zuma – with whom the Gupta’s have a longstanding mutually and economically beneficial relationship. 

Not for the first time has Bell Pottinger been linked with some dubious clients and political movements. It previously represented Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, athlete Oscar Pistorius, who was charged with shooting his girlfriend, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and former South African premier FW de Klerk’s political campaign against Nelson Mandela for president – to name a few.

The firm has now been the subject of an unprecedented PRCA disciplinary investigation, which triggered damaging stories about its activities.

The outcome has been near catastrophic for Bell Pottinger, with an estimated quarter of clients dumping it and more serving notice, staff leaving either by resigning before being fired or getting out to get another job while they still can.

While I’m not wishing to do down my PR industry colleagues, there are certainly things we can all learn from this story:

  • Brand reputation is corporate currency. It’s estimated that a strong brand or company reputation adds as much as 25% to a company’s market value. Preserve it with everything you have.
  • Failure to manage a story can be the death knell of a successful business. If something bad happens or a negative story surfaces be decisive, be honest and manage it proactively. The Bell Pottinger story had been bubbling around for months – the Guardian ran a big piece on it in July. But failure to be prepared and get ahead of the news curve culminated in a baying media pack out for blood.
  • Relationships matter with the media. Cultivating and then maintaining long-term goodwill with the journalists is vital for PRs – you never know when you might need to call on it. While the motivations of PRs and journalists can sometimes act as opposing forces, there are ways and means of maintaining good contacts. Acting the obstructive PR to a journalist just trying to draft some copy does not garner good feeling.
  • Damage limitation if a story does turn sour is not an exact science. The fall-out of a story and its impact on a client brand can depend on so many variable factors. A slow news day can really work both for and against you.
  • Integrity matters. Long held as ‘dark arts’, the methods used by PRs to place stories and sell in coverage would not always stand up to ethical scrutiny. However, in this digital age of ultimate transparency, how we choose to conduct ourselves on behalf of our clients is paramount. After all it’s not just their reputation we are managing it is also out own.

 Joanna Randall is managing director of Bristol PR agency Purplefish









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