4 lessons agencies can learn from the Bell Pottinger scandal

In the world of PR agencies, we create and share the stories of our clients. We are never meant to become the story, but this is exactly the nightmare situation that PR firm Bell Pottinger has found itself in.

In the world of PR agencies, we create and share the stories of our clients. We are never meant to become the story, but this is exactly the nightmare situation that PR firm Bell Pottinger has found itself in. Embroiled in a highly toxic political firestorm of a scandal in South Africa, the London based PR firm is dealing with a crisis that would leave even the most stoic of agency bosses in an absolute meltdown.

In what is a very complicated story, Bell Pottinger has been accused of fueling racial tensions to deflect attention away from its controversial client, Oakbay Investments, a company owned by the billionaire Gupta family. The controversial Guptas, a polarizing force in South Africa, stand accused of engaging in bribery and corruption with some of the country’s top government ministers, including President Jacob Zuma. The Oakbay account was led by partner Victoria Geoghegan, since fired from the agency, who allegedly devised a campaign that focused on stoking the flames of inequality and race, leveraging the hashtag #EconomicEmancipation to steer the narrative to highlight enduring racial divisions and inequalities. All this in South Africa, a country still dealing with the continued hangover of decades of harsh apartheid rule. Bell Pottinger’s campaign on behalf of the Guptas was accused of creating fake Twitter accounts and social media feeds stirring up racist sentiment and anger across the country. The strategy seems naïve at best and dangerous at worse.

With Bell Pottinger facing an ongoing legal investigation, crisis board meetings, increasing amounts of bad press, and a summons by industry watchdog PRCA to appear at a hearing next month, there is much that PR agencies can learn from this debacle.

Keep leadership informed
In an official statement from Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson, he stated that senior management was misled about the work Geoghegan and her team were doing in South Africa. This alluded to the notion that if leadership was accurately informed, it would have intervened. Agencies should have internal mechanisms in place to ensure that leadership is informed of the details of controversial work. An internal analysis should be conducted on each account and, based on a pre-determined criteria, listed as either "controversial" or "non-controversial" accounts. Once an account is deemed "controversial," bi-weekly status reports and monthly meetings should be held with the sole objective of keeping leadership up-to-date. This allows leaders to be informed so they can intervene if the work goes against the core values of the agency.

Not all business is good business
According to reports, Bell Pottinger was paid £100,000 per month to work with Oakbay Investments. A lucrative account, tempting enough for even the biggest of agencies with the most promising of new business pipelines. Nevertheless, client work that can potentially stain the reputation of an agency is cause to pause and seriously review taking on the account. If in doubt, talk to your teams, gauge the overarching sentiment, and review the core values of your agency, juxtaposed against the values of your potential client and the work being done.

Reputation management...for yourselves
There is a change.org petition lodged with the British prime minister to look into Bell Pottinger activities in South Africa. Earlier this week, BBC’s Newsnight broadcast a damning segment on the scandal, further solidifying the crisis for the agency. The same way we counsel our clients on strategic reputation management and crisis communications is the same way we should counsel and plan for ourselves. Agency reputation management is crucial, and as practitioners, we know this does not begin when the crisis occurs, but should be an ongoing strategy. Agencies should consider their own reputation management as an integral part of day-to-day activities, alongside all other business. In addition, agencies should have their own crisis communications strategy firmly in place ensuring they are also prepared and ready.

Diversify global teams
Bell Pottinger will find it very difficult to secure business in South Africa and across the continent in the near future. While we do not know the final outcome of the investigations, what is clear is at best the agency made shockingly naïve blunders in a key emerging market.

When a global agency is working in emerging markets, it is crucial to ensure teams are made up of both seasoned local and international professionals. Emerging markets often have new and therefore fragile democracies alongside a backdrop of complicated political and socioeconomic issues. A mixed team ensures local and global implications and sensitivities are considered when creating and executing campaigns. Global best practices combined with regional knowledge leads to customized local strategies, which can navigate nuances avoiding negative fall out.

Claudine Moore is a board member at the World Communications Forum Association.

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