Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / Political spin / Trust and reputations

8 September 2017


Opinion piece on the demise of Bell Pottinger

As Bell Pottinger prepares to put itself into administration following its expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), here’s an opinion piece, which calls out the PRCA’s humbug.

PRCA betrayed the PR trade by witch hunting Bell Pottinger

The PRCA has willfully destroyed a great British PR brand, and then boasted about it in the public domain. Shame on them.

Bell Pottinger (BP) was working for the controversial Gupta family as a cover for working for Zuma and the ANC. BP’s work for the Guptas was, it seems, done in the dark by anonymous agents in social media. Sometimes, those agents were fake. Moreover on behalf of the Guptas, BP launched attacks in SA on people and firms who were existing clients of BP.

Promulgating PR messages in the dark for clients who are proxies for political parties or corrupt individuals and then deploying behind the scenes agents in the swirl of social media are two very questionable approaches to the Dark Arts. And compounding that by castigating one’s own clients on behalf of another client is, to say the least, a conflict of interest.

Of course if it were the case that everybody did this and everybody else knew that that was so, that would not make it right but it would at least be the case that the audience was forewarned. However we all know that the whole point of deploying such tactics is that the audience remains ignorant of the sources, methods and intentions of the behind the scene string pullers.

There is no moral or ethical obligation to name one’s client if all one is doing is ghost-writing speeches or providing insight and lines of argument, narrative and messaging. Though that should not encompass undermining an existing client, unless the work is strictly fire walled by a separate conflict brand.

But once a PR company or person begins to act or mediate with third parties on behalf of a client, full transparency is absolutely essential for the purpose of public trust.

It does not matter that a client’s arguments or reasoning are weak or, in the eyes of some, reactionary. Regardless of the strength or sustainability of a client’s messaging, every client, even an oligarch or dictator, is entitled to pay someone to formulate them in the best possible light. Whatever the client or issue a PR tackles, though, telling lies and resorting to deception is not acceptable.

Yet BP does not so much stand accused of resorting to the Bernays-type dark art practices mentioned above, so much as for promulgating a divisive racist message in post-apartheid South Africa. But the truth is that everyone on all sides in SA promotes a version of the anti-White Monopolist line, so it barely matters that BP is saying it on behalf of the Gupta family.

So BP’s supposed racialism was simply the sort of nonsense by which all sides in SA proceed, and not the worst example of it. But, accepted, quite separately BP was indeed guilty of unethical dissemination of Fake Opinion. That’s something that goes on all the time in UK politics at the behest of PR pros, as anybody who witnessed the last General Election, the Brexit debate or the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war knows full well. Also, any PR who commissions reports to garner headlines on behalf of clients, often referred to as advocacy research, is, arguably, guilty of spreading fake opinion, too.

Meanwhile, the dilemma every PR professional faces in non-western countries is the predominance of oligarchical practices, which make political and business interests inseparable. It is just simply not honest to pretend or to demand that PR practitioners should operate to the same standards in third and second world countries as they do in the first world.

Instead we must be honest about the working conditions we find ourselves in wherever we work in the world.

All of us who have worked in non-western countries have had to juggle such ethical issues as best we can.

The PRCA has not properly clarified the ethical issues at stake. It has instead indulged in opportunistic grandstanding and virtue signalling at the expense of BP. This is nothing more than a cynical ploy to boost the PRCA’s moral authority in the UK by unleashing an unhelpful smokescreen.

A more ethical and honest approach from the PRCA would have been to use this crisis as a case study to kick start a proper debate about the ethics and challenges of working in countries such as SA. It might also have opened up a discussion about modern propensity of PR pros to resort to spreading fake opinion (not to be confused with fake news) at home too.

But instead of doing that it chose to side with one dodgy political force, the Democratic Alliance and the South African Communist Party, in SA at the expense of another, the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma. In other words, PRCA became a partisan actor in SA politics, for self-interested, entirely selfish reasons. Or if we want to be more forgiving, we could assume that the leadership of PRCA is not very bright and that it has been suckered by the enemies of Zuma in SA into destroying BP and ruining the livelihood of hundreds of PR consultants employed by the company. Take your pick.

6 responses to “Opinion piece on the demise of Bell Pottinger”

  1. I see you have been ostracised by Ingham. It seems that anyone who dares to disagree with him is relegated to the ‘disreputable box. I agree with your article, thank you for writing it.

  2. Don Radoli says:

    You don’t mean this, Paul:
    It is just simply not honest to pretend or to demand that PR practitioners should operate to the same standards in third and second world countries as they do in the first world.

    Instead we must be honest about the working conditions we find ourselves in wherever we work in the world.

    A divisible ethics? One for the first world and one for the third world? And you wonder why BP stumbled and fell on its own dagger.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Don, I mean it. The world is a rough and uneven place. PR is one of the world’s toughest trades. In South Africa every side of the political divide wallows in racialised politics that the advanced world finds repugnant. The tragedy behind the BP debacle was that a trade body in London, the PRCA, took a complaint from the Democratic Alliance (ignited by the South African Communist Party) at face value. Yet the DA is just as much into racialised politics (arguably more so even) as the ANC and the Gupatas. Also, in SA and many other places in the lesser developed world the link between politics and business in the form of oligarchs is part and parcel of normal life. The PRCA’s decision to expel BP took no account of reality on the ground in South Africa. Either Westerners refuse to play in such environments or we have to involve ourselves in the most ethical way possible given the circumstances, which unavoidably necessitates adapting to local prejudices. In other words, ethics guides what we ought to do. And what we ought to do varies with the circumstances and practical dilemmas we face. Regardless of BP’s errors, the one thing PRCA ought not to have done was to back one set of racialised politics against another. It also most certainly should not have taken a partisan side in a battle between competing oligarchical groups. But that is what it did when it effectively nailed BP’s coffin. In summary, any big business or serious player claiming to operate in Nigeria or China or Kenya or South Africa, or similar places, to the same standards as they do in London or Oslo is lying. It’s time to get real and to start telling the truth.

  4. Don Radoli says:

    Paul, I beg to differ. The inevitable conclusion of your train of thought would be that a murder in Jo’burg is more palatable than one in London just because the murder rate in SA is much higher than that in London. To stretch the analogy to BPs role in the debacle would be to argue that the prosecution should go easy on the murderer because there so many homicides in the country. Read your own response and you’ll find it fits this extreme analogy.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Don, sorry, but I don’t see how you could possibly reach such a conclusion from what I wrote. To take one simple example, no western company would send a woman to Saudi Arabia and expect her to drive a car or dress in any way contrary to the law. Gay British married couples are unlikely to find a warm welcome in Lagos. Any gay man caught being sexually active in Nigeria would be imprisoned. In China free speech is not allowed. In most of Africa one cannot separate politics from business; in the West that link would be labelled corrupt. Yet, quite rightly, Western companies, including PR firms, are very active in all those locations, working on the terms set by the country’s authorities.

  6. Don Radoli says:

    You mean the analogy is invalid or too extreme? I stand by it.