Timeline of a crisis: The fall of Bell Pottinger

A cautionary tale about how one of the U.K.'s best-known PR firms caused its own destruction through an ill-advised campaign that stoked racial division in South Africa

James Henderson
James Henderson

April 12

Reports surface that U.K. firm Bell Pottinger parted ways with Oakbay Investments, a Gupta family conglomerate in South Africa.

May 28

Leaks expose the powerful Gupta family’s state capture campaign in South Africa.

Later, Bell Pottinger is implicated as a key architect in a strategy linking opponents of Gupta ally President Jacob Zuma to "white monopoly capital."

June 1

More leaked documents allege improper dealings of government contracts.

July 5

U.K. industry body, the PRCA, opens an investigation into Bell Pottinger after a South African political party files a complaint.

July 6

Bell Pottinger dismisses partner Victoria Geoghegan for "inappropriate and offensive" work for Oakbay and suspends three staffers.

The agency apologizes, while senior management claims to have been misled.

July 11

Agency cofounder Lord Tim Bell, who left Bell Pottinger last year, claims he was "completely ignored" when he raised concerns about the Oakbay work.

September 3

CEO James Henderson (left) steps down.

September 4

The PRCA blacklists Bell Pottinger for at least five years, finding it behaved unethically for its work.

September 6

Clients including HSBC, Clydesdale Bank, TalkTalk, and Carillion dump Bell Pottinger. Chime, the agency’s second largest shareholder, abandons its 27% stake.

September 12

Bell Pottinger collapses into administration. The agency had a 250 global headcount, according to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report.

MISS An unqualified failure morally and professionally, the campaign revealed a lack of leadership and a culture prioritizing agency billings over ethical behavior.

Takeaways

Lesson 1: When agencies take on risky, lucrative assignments, they must ensure they are comfortable becoming part of the story should the work hit the public domain.

Will clients, partners, investors, and employees stick with them?

Lesson 2: Everybody has the right to representation, as Lord Bell proclaims. However, representation does not equal manipulation.

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