How can Bell Pottinger move on from its South African scandal?

Bell Pottinger's controversial work for the Gupta family in South Africa last year and the fallout ever since, was already the UK PR industry's biggest story of 2017 but has truly caught fire over the past two days.

Since Sunday, we’ve had the triple whammy of CEO James Henderson’s resignation; the faintly damning enquiry by law firm Herbert Smith Threehills; and the PRCA’s decision to throw Bell Pottinger out of the association.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party in South Africa, is somewhat jubilant today, believing Henderson’s departure and his agency’s official censure represent some justice for the divisive racial campaign that Bell Pottinger allegedly ran in South Africa. Although, in truth, the DA may only feel truly vindicated should Bell Pottinger stop trading altogether.

Lord Tim Bell, ousted from Bell Pottinger last summer, remains more dissatisfied, however. Bell, who claims to have resisted working for the Guptas while still at the agency that boasts his name, tells me justice would only be done should Henderson also sell his shares in Bell Pottinger – believed to represent a 37 per cent stake – and other directors Mark Smith and David Beck tender their resignation.

Bell argues that all these directors should be held responsible for the Gupta campaign and the resulting scandal that has so damaged Bell Pottinger, its client base and its 180-odd employees.

What next for Bell Pottinger

Indeed this does beg the question: what is the future for this once-great PR agency? It is still one of the UK's largest agencies, after all.

It is certainly hard to remember a more rapid fall from grace for a major PR consultancy. Quite aside from the turmoil over the past few days, it is well known that the smouldering scandal has seen the loss of numerous clients and staff in recent months.

Employees must be exhausted by the saga and morale may well be at a low ebb. People are also asking whether the Bell Pottinger name is now irrevocably tarnished, particularly with its expulsion from the industry’s biggest trade body for the next five years.

If not a break up or sale of constituent parts, then we should at least expect a rebranding in the medium-term. Much of this depends on whether Bell gets his way and more directors leave and/or sell down their shareholdings.

If the Bell Pottinger scandal hasn’t hit the global reputations of all British PR firms it must at least have sent a shiver through their senior managers. Because if a 30-year-old consultancy brand can be damaged so quickly on the basis of one client, how robust are many other great names?

Time for the industry to think hard

It raises the existential question of wherein a consultancy brand’s value lies.

Ultimately, PR consultancies are a sum of their people, their clients and their ideas. But also, and this is the critical point, their values.

Interestingly, the (generally rather thin) Herbert Smith Threehills report’s most robust recommendation is a wholesale rethink of Bell Pottinger’s governance, employee training, and the dissemination of guidelines on standards and values. Sensible advice in this case particularly.

The vast majority of this country’s PR consultancies are highly ethical, well governed and transparent in their operations. But perhaps it’s time for every agency to think hard about how they score on these measures.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘there for the grace of God go I’ for the myriad of communications businesses – because most genuinely can be proud of their clients, their work and their staff - but it’s certainly worth some contingency planning.

After all, if consultancies are so adept at advising clients on reputational crises, Bell Pottinger may act as a warning that agencies can face unexpected and major crises of their own making – with equally catastrophic effects.

Danny Rogers is editor-in-chief of PRWeek UK

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