How Bell Pottinger's woes may become a saving grace for the PR industry
The emerging scandal in South Africa involving PR giant Bell Pottinger, and the country’s most infamous family dynasty, is a spectacular emergency; if the global public cared more about Africa it would be a wildfire.
Bell Pottinger disputes the allegations, but that hasn’t stopped it being found guilty of breaching the PRCA’s code of conduct. It looks like it has already cost one partner their job with rumours circulating that CEO James Henderson has resigned – although the firm has denied this to the media.
PRs around the world exist in a bubble that affords them a degree of security. Laymen ignore the goings on of an industry that baffles them, which lets firms behave with impunity. This allows scope for risk-taking, but if left unchecked, rot can to set in. That’s how situations like South Africa arise.
This is unforgiveable. Whilst a gust of wind can knock a house of cards over, it’s doomed either way if the foundations are unsound and rotten to begin with. Other agencies have engaged in business with shady people; the 20th century is littered with examples of opaque dealings, but most have kept their heads below the parapet. Global PRs don’t get to be global by hogging the limelight.
Checks on the conduct of lobbyists are overdue; critics suggest what little there has been is timid and cosmetic, but that may be about to change. This was the event everyone feared, an entirely self-inflicted wound. The Bell Pottinger affair is the rot at the base of the pack.
Root and branch reform is needed to address this. But PR is a Hydra; cut off a head, and more appear.
The PRCA faces a challenge to take a firm line with Bell Pottinger, to make an example of it, to give some semblance of transparency. There are so many PR companies that operate without PRCA membership, some argue it is not a level playing field.
Many of Bell Pottinger’s agents would argue that their firm has been made the whipping boy for the whole industry. Employees who had nothing to do with South Africa could suffer. BP could take legal action for loss of reputation and business. It wouldn’t go quietly.
But not only is the PR Hydra many-headed, it is also unconventional. It doesn’t necessarily need decapitation to grow more heads.
Would harsh sanctions against BP deter others from taking profitable risks? Not likely. Is there the will to be firm? Who sits on the PRCA’s Professional Practices Committee isn’t exactly transparent, which is, of course, part of the problem. Without that accountability, there’s little hope of reform.
Would there even be any point? The lines of the PR business are blurring, especially for the global agencies. As they go international, their spheres expand, from advertising to political campaigns, lobbying and beyond. Firms like Cambridge Analaytica can begin to operate campaigns beyond national jurisdictions, everywhere from the US to Uruguay. Can any one body keep control of such a beast? Can a standard set of ethics be applied to companies operating in diverse markets, especially when the rewards are so vast?
But strangely, transparency may come here in spite of the PRCA’s lack of command and control. Globalising PR may remove the authority of one national body, but it leaves firms at the mercy of a greater swathe of the international press, and their respective audiences. Ultimately, it is that greater scrutiny abroad that has stung BP.
The irony is, if cast adrift, certain consultants may no longer need to linger in the shadows. BP may decide to rebrand, but either way, being known as a consultant from the go-to agency when things are really at their worst may not be a bad thing: like a magnet, BP has attracted a litany of history’s bad guys, from Pistorius to Pinochet to BAE systems. This becoming common knowledge wouldn’t be bad for business.
Perhaps, perversely, this is the transparency the industry so desperately needs? Unwittingly, Bell Pottinger might be leading the way.
Mark Borkowski is the founder of Borkowski.do. He tweets @MarkBorkowski