One of the biggest challenges for any PR firm is how to create or control a story but also keep business moving forward. In other words, it’s not just about getting media coverage and people’s attention. At its best, public relations helps set the agenda for public discussion and communication with the right audiences. At its worst, PR can get ugly… really ugly, as it did in the case of UK firm Bell Pottinger.
A piece in The New York Times last month – How Bell Pottinger, P.R. Firm for Despots and Rogues, Met Its End in South Africa – got us thinking about the importance of ethics in our field, and the thin ice PR “pros” put themselves on when they take shortcuts or use immoral tactics. The Bell Pottinger scandal offers many different angles to understand how not to do PR.
The Downfall of Bell Pottinger
If you haven’t read about it, here’s the short story…
Bell Pottinger headed a racially-driven PR campaign in South Africa which lead to the firm’s disgrace, downfall and bankruptcy. The Gupta brothers, who control a multi-billion-dollar business empire in South Africa, financed the campaign to help empower the country’s poor blacks. Or at least, that’s what they told Bell Pottinger, but they had less altruistic motives.
With the help of Bell Pottinger, the brothers ran a pro-Gupta social media campaign using fake accounts and hashtags such as #RespectGuptas. The objective of this campaign – which involved some 220,000 tweets – was to soften the Guptas’ image and shift the narrative away from their corrupt political ties. They also wanted to tarnish their business enemies by popularizing the hashtag #WhiteMonopolyCapitalism and associating South African business with economic apartheid.
While both PR campaigns were “successful” in terms of the Guptas and Bell Pottinger objectives, they had a deeply negative impact on the political, social and business climates of South Africa. According to the British PR trade group which later ejected Bell Pottinger, the South Africa campaigns helped set back race relations in the country by at least a decade.
Lessons to Learn from Bell Pottinger
The downfall of Bell Pottinger is an awful story from beginning to end, but what can we learn from it?
For one, Bell Pottinger reminds us that PR campaigns are driven by stories and those stories have lives of their own. Bell Pottinger is certainly not the only company implicated in Gupta-linked scandals. However, unlike companies such as KPMG, McKinsey and SAP, Bell Pottinger was known specifically as a ‘mercenary PR firm for hire’ to people like the Guptas. Once the Gupta connection became publicly known, Bell Pottinger could no longer distance itself from the negative story that it had helped fuel.
The problem was not a story gone wrong, but a story gone horribly right. One successful PR campaign can change an organization or company forever. At ThinkInk we think carefully about the companies we choose to work with, and the kind of work we take on, because we put our name behind everything we create. And our reputation means everything. Unfortunately, it wasn’t regret or ethics that brought down Bell Pottinger, but business: in a 48-hour period the company suffered £8 million worth of client losses. That simply doesn’t happen to PR firms who do business the ethical way.
Brands are increasingly expected to offer a positive story that is inclusive and sensitive of all. While the Gupta brothers and people like them will use PR in dishonest ways, the trade itself plays an important role in establishing clear and meaningful communication. It’s not just about business …people matter and will respond to positive stories and calls to action.
And that – if any – is the upside to this story, that people are listening and taking action. PR is no longer thought of as a one-way conversation. Our ThinkInk motto is think beyond the press release, and maybe we should consider adding think beyond the hashtag. It’s not just about clicks and retweets. Bell Pottinger knew that, didn’t care about the broader (and negative) impact of its actions, and got what it deserved.
The Impact of Public Relations
What about the principal stakeholders at Bell Pottinger? What happens to those behind-the-scenes orchestrators and strategists when their firms crumble? Not surprisingly, there was a power struggle behind the scenes during the South Africa campaign. While the principals released statements and moved on to other ventures – they are “PR men,” after all – let’s not forget the trail of destruction they leave behind. Too often, PR is dismissed as a cost of doing business – but in reality organizations should be more sensitive to the stories they tell. Good PR is worth paying for, and despite the example of Bell Pottinger, it is also worth doing the right way.
“Put yourself in the client’s shoes” is what we do every day as a PR firm. For us, PR is about more than scoring the next bit of ink – it’s also about making sure that a client’s strategy, story and messaging not only reflect their business goals and ideals, but achieve them – and without harming others.