Morality is a job for priests. Not PR Men.

Anyone who toils in public relations or one day aspires to join our field MUST make it their business to read about the rise and fall of Bell Pottinger. This superb New York Times front page article will dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” for you.

Long story made short, Bell Pottinger, a 30-year-old, high profile player in the U.K. PR world shuttered its doors after a series of reprehensible programs it had concocted to stir racial strife in South Africa went very, very wrong and nearly tore the country apart.

The firm, founded by Tim Bell who helped Margaret Thatcher win three go-rounds as PM, had had a long, and checkered, career of representing very evil people and institutions. To wit:

  • Former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet.
  • Our very own Pentagon, for whom BP produced pro-US commercials that aired on Iraq TV soap operas during that never-ending war.
  • The three Gupta brothers.

The latter, who are rich beyond one’s wildest dreams, told Bell Pottinger executives they wanted the firm to enact a campaign in support of poor blacks in South Africa. Sounds innocent enough, right?

Bell Pottinger moved forward and created a “non-party political narrative around the issue of economic apartheid.” Needless to say, the word apartheid remains incendiary in a country that embraced it for centuries.

This time around, though, the victims of the economic apartheid campaign were South Africa’s white one-percenters. Thanks to BP, these totally legitimate business executives found themselves being singled out and crucified as the worst examples of what BP copywriters termed, “white monopoly capital.”

Things got so bad so quickly that the government was concerned the BP campaign could ignite a civil war.

But, Bell kept the campaign going even though, as Mr. Bell is quoted as saying, “It was altogether smelly.” Why? Because it was also immensely profitable: the Gupta boys were paying BP a cool monthly retainer of £100,000 a month.

And, at least in the beginning of the race-baiting campaign, BP had only experienced one client resignation.

Things quickly turned south when more and more radical black groups began springing up across the countryside intent on inflicting physical harm to any well-heeled white executive. Government investigations began and BP’s onerous role was made public.

Almost immediately, clients and employees began dropping like flies. The firm was barred from the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association (which is the kiss of death for any firm). And, as the late political talk show host, John Mclaughlin, was fond of saying, “Buh-bye.” BP went belly-up.

Bell Pottinger’s sordid tale of self-destruction should serve as a wake-up call to any agency that agrees to represent sketchy clients and governments. The short-term windfall will never offset the long-term image and reputational damage.

Post Script: In describing Bell Pottinger’s role in the South African race-baiting campaign, Francis Ingham, Director General of the aforementioned Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.”

How’d you like that as your legacy?

Tim Bell’s response? “Morality is a job for priests. Not PR men.”

It’s too bad PR doesn’t have a commissioner who can impose lifetime bans on people like Bell. Their very presence sullies an industry whose image is always in a quasi-shaky condition.

4 thoughts on “Morality is a job for priests. Not PR Men.

  1. This brings up a big issue for me: When was the last time you saw a PR firm whose purpose was to actually serve the greater good, to add positivity to society? When governments or companies screw up, PR firms rush to queue up with their hands open to take money for “crisis communications” and to fix sullied reputations. Oil spills, major product recalls, corporate malfeasance, etc. Where does a PR firm draw the line between accepting money from a bad corporate citizen vs. representing only the best and brightest brands and causes?

  2. Great post – really appreciate the detail about the scandal which most articles haven’t dealt with. Everyone knows something was terribly wrong at Bell Pottinger but this level of detail really brings the story home.

  3. The BP scandal caused lots of discussion and debate in the UK; we addressed it by inviting in an Ethics specialist who made us think deeply about how we make decisions and recommendations to clients. And to ensure everyone here understood its importance, we asked our younger team members to write blogs about different aspects of the ethics in PR debate. https://flagshipconsulting.co.uk/blog/2018/01/30/importance-ethics-pr-pr-practitioners-upping-game/

  4. Amen, Steve. I’ve spent a lot of time correcting people who think PR is about “spinning.” I usually say something along the lines of, “actually, the best PR advice to clients is usually just to do the right thing.”

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