Some people think that there are no ethics in marketing, some people have asked if I started this site because I felt that there was not enough ethics in the industry. This isn’t true, I generally feel that the industry does try its best to be ethical in its outlook. There are always examples where this doesn’t quite hold true, but this week we saw one of those companies get their comeuppance. There is a difficult line in marketing which is the question of who you work for. Not every company has perfect ethics and if you work for them does that make you an unethical company, it’s something that can be difficult for marketing companies. Some companies vet their clients better than others but when your past clients have included Rebekah Brooks, Asma al-Assad, Alexander Lukashenko, and Trafigura then there is an implication that you don’t care who you work for, this can come back to bite you and it did this week for Bell Pottinger.
I will use the Wikipedia description of the scandal as they have more details of what happened than most:
On 19 March 2017, the South African Sunday Times alleged that Bell Pottinger was behind a social media strategy, using fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users, in an attempt to influence public opinion and sow racial division in South Africa, as well as targeting media and personalities that were opposed to the Gupta family The aim of the campaign was to portray the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy involving ‘white monopoly capital’ to deflect accusations and evidence of their client’s involvement in corruption and state capture, and to suggest that ‘white monopoly capital’ is actively blocking transformation in South Africa.
The allegations were denied by Victoria Geoghegan, a partner and director at Bell Pottinger. On 12 April 2017, it was reported that Bell Pottinger had dropped the Gupta family as a client, having previously been paid around £100,000 per month, reportedly citing “threatening” social media attacks and “insulting” allegations that it had incited racial tensions.
Pottinger’s involvement with the Gupta Family was further highlighted in June 2017 when South African newspapers The Citizen and Sunday Times published several emails, allegedly between South African President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma (and a close Gupta comrade) and Bell Pottinger, pointing to a ‘dirty’ public relations smear battle. They proposed that Hamza Farooqui (MD of WorldSpace in South Africa, and a partner to Gupta associate Salim Essa) would blame the former South African Deputy Finance Minister, Mr Mcebisi Jonas, of dishonesty and corruption. This alleged ‘dirty’ statement was formed by Bell Pottinger employee, Nick Lambert. The statement was earmarked for release soon after Mr Jonas said that he was offered a bribe by a Gupta family member to betray his boss, Pravin Gordhan. Mr Jonas denied this bribe and instead made a public announcement. The ‘dirty’ statement was never released after legal concerns were raised by Bell Pottinger’s Victoria Geoghegan. Nick Lambert, senior advisor at Bell Pottinger, was also said to have prepared “key moments” for a speech by ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine. The speech included a quote “Those who want to disrupt the State of the Nation speech must prepare themselves for a civil war.” Bell Pottinger initially denied any allegations of wrongdoing.
Bell Pottinger founder Lord Bell was said to have “left his own firm with key staff members, in apparent disgust over the plan”; Bell confirmed in July 2017 that the Oakbay actions had been a factor in his August 2016 departure.
In June 2017 the South Africa’s Democratic Alliance criticised the country’s tourism board for working with Bell Pottinger “at the same time as the Guptas were paying them [Bell Pottinger] to sow division in South Africa” (the tourist board contract had been terminated, with the board denying this was for political reasons). The Democratic Alliance also complained about Bell Pottinger’s actions to two UK PR bodies, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. DA spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme said Bell Pottinger tried to divide and conquer South Africans by abusing racial tensions in a bid to keep controversial South African President Jacob Zuma and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), in power despite ongoing reports of “State Capture” by the Gupta family. On 4 July, the PRCA acknowledged receipt of the Democratic Alliance’s complaint, and on 13 July said it had also received written observations in response from Bell Pottinger. The Guardian said Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane had called for the PRCA to strip Bell Pottinger of its membership, with the matter to be considered by the PRCA’s disciplinary committee on 18 August 2017; it also reported that clients were “considering leaving” Bell Pottinger “as clients do not want to be represented by PR firms that become the story or are associated with scandal”. The PRCA said a final announcement would be made on or before the week commencing 4 September 2017, but news that the complaint had been upheld was reported on 24 August. Bell Pottinger appealed against the ruling, while it emerged that James Henderson, the company’s chief executive, had resigned just days before.
On 4 September, the PRCA announced Bell Pottinger’s expulsion. Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, described the company’s actions, which had incited racial hatred, as “absolutely unthinkable”, saying Bell Pottinger had “brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions.”
It is so great to see the PRCA showing its teeth and making sure that the ethics of the industry are followed. Marketing companies aren’t perfect, they all make mistakes, mis steps and do things wrong sometimes but Bell Pottinger seem to have made a concerted effort to work for some really not very nice people, and they have now suffered the consequences.
As well as their expulsion it is now looking like they may go into administration over the next few weeks. It would not surprise me to see them go into administration and for some of the partners to start up a different company with a clean slate within 6 months, if they do that I do hope that the PRCA will look very carefully about admitting them again.
Bell Pottinger are an example of a marketing company with few or no ethics but they are unusual but there are lessons to be learned about the importance of vetting your clients. If there is one warning for other companies in this, I think it is to vet your clients for fear you will become the story. Reputation management is an important part of being a good marketer but I feel it should be to enhance the reputation rather than make it up and you certainly do not do that at the expense of other people or by inciting racial issues.
For more about the decision please have a look at our story on the verdict of the PRCA: