Jacques Cilliers
3 minute read
5 Sep 2017
11:12 am

Bell Pottinger: a PR firm in dire need of their own services

Jacques Cilliers

When a PR firm needs better PR, you know there's something wrong. Bell Pottinger is all over the news – but in the worst way possible.

Jacques Cilliers

Bell Pottinger was known as one of the best in the United Kingdom. They’ve been in the PR game for 30 years. However, their work on one client has shone a light on everything that is wrong with the public relations industry, and highlighted that this PR firm is in dire need of their own services.

One of the reasons public relations agencies exist is to manage the reputation of a brand, a stakeholder or interest group. Bell Pottinger, founded in 1987, prides itself on delivering “best-in-class communications services” for their clients. That fulfils one purpose, right?

The agency is front-page news now, and everybody is gunning for them. How does a firm responsible for the reputations of others save their own? Their reputation has come under threat in the last year due to the work they did on an investment company by the name of Oakbay – owned by the not-so-loved Gupta family. Based on what’s happening in the news right now, I don’t think they can.

The Guardian listed the firm’s history of sketchy clients in an insightful article, which you can read in full here. FW de Klerk (when he ran against Nelson Mandela), Oscar Pistorius (when he was accused of murder) and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko are just a few mentioned here.

The Financial Times deemed their expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for unethical practice front-page news.

This same story was the lead story on The Guardian’s home page this morning.

And then this striking front page by CITY AM. “Bell Rottinger” covers a South African flag with the subheading: “Top city PR firm thrown out of trade body after South African campaign accused of inciting racial hatred.”

Just when you think their reputation hasn’t taken enough of a beating, their co-founder – who left the agency late in 2016 because “nobody listened to him” – appeared on BBC’s Newsnight last night.

Lord Tim Bell had a hard time fielding questions from host Kirsty Wark. In between phone calls and texts live on air, Wark unearthed emails that contradicted what he said, from which he backtracked masterfully. He remained steadfast in the belief that he is innocent in this whole debacle.

I find it hard to believe that the co-founder of a PR agency didn’t have the power to pull the plug on unwanted business, and that he would let staff – even the chief executive – undermine him. It’s a convenient excuse in this tumultuous time.

A quote summarising Lord Bell’s attitude in this interview: “You can attack me all you like, but it’s not gonna work. I had nothing to do with getting this account.”

He also says it’s the end of Bell Pottinger, but is quick to add: “It has nothing to do with me.”

You can watch the full (cringeworthy) interview here:

To top this off, according to The Guardian, the agency and senior staff denied Lord Bell voiced any concerns throughout his time there.

Is this the end of a PR firm that has been the central figure in exposing everything rotten in the PR industry? I can only hope so.