No easy answer: drawing the PR lines in a post-Bell Pottinger world

Where will the PR lines be drawn after the Bell Pottinger scandal? / Flickr

PR people, like journalists, are never short of an opinion. And in the last few weeks industry experts have rushed to declare that PR is dead, morally bankrupt or facing a new dawn.

The Bell Pottinger scandal has brought out the best and worst in PR practitioners, who, given an issue that pushes the right buttons, are prone to run riot across social media like the residents of Springfield in the Simpsons.

I was proud to work at Bell Pottinger. It is sad that now feels like a declaration at an AA meeting.

My team and I manned a Northern outpost in Leeds, and even though the London team packed us off to glamorous press launches in Immingham, we always felt a part of a vibrant team doing good work.

There was a swagger to Bell Pottinger that, before the split from Chime Communications, came from being the biggest operator. It was the situation that all agencies strive for — great people, doing great work, for great clients.

It was energising to work in a place that supported new ideas and ways of working. I had wanted to launch a product placement business for years, and when the concept was approved, it was supported with access to senior members of the firm and clients across the group. It sounds like common sense — but it rarely happens so quickly and easily in an agency.

Bell Pottinger was connected. When a client needed to speak to a columnist, a couple of calls to the public affairs team yielded an unlisted mobile number in ten minutes. There was a feeling that nothing was unachievable.

But to raid the Marvel box of quotes, with great power comes great responsibility, and the work of the geopolitical business always raised questions. Work in the Middle East and Africa was undoubtedly profitable and, as Lord Bell told Jeremy Paxman in 2012, “I’m not a priest. I have my own personal morality, and I know the difference between right and wrong.”

The difference between right and wrong should always be a matter of debate. In the glare of social media, it is increasingly becoming more black and white. The work for the Guptas is indefensible and smacks of economic necessity over sound moral or business judgment.

Bell Pottinger’s expulsion from the PRCA, after its work on behalf of South Africa's Gupta family was found guilty of breaching the PRCA Code of Conduct, was inevitable. The PRCA said that Bell Pottinger had brought the "industry into disrepute”.

In a rush to judgment, the industry needs to be careful over where the lines are drawn.

Is work for tobacco, alcohol or drug companies ethical? What about a cosmetics brand that uses animal testing? Or a manufacturer with a poor safety record? In these situations, a PR agency can give the company a wide berth or work with them to improve the areas that are unacceptable and so improve the brand’s reputation.

There are no easy answers on this issue, and I fear the motives of people who seek to draw up the rules of the game.

From Richard Edelman describing the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the PRCA as "a proud moment for the PR industry" to the social media backlash, it would do everyone some good to remember that over 200 people could lose their jobs because of the actions of a few and some dodgy decisions by the management.

It is clear that the Bell Pottinger brand is irrevocably damaged. I know two large corporations that had to part company with the agency and both did so with a heavy heart.

I wish my old colleagues the best of luck with whatever comes next.

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Nathan Lane

Nathan Lane is a director of Campfire PR, an agency that has never floated anything down the Thames.

All by Nathan