by Regine le Roux


Will they be paying back the money? They, being Bell Pottinger, who unashamedly charged a 100 000 monthly retainer to cause havoc in South Africa with a white monopoly capital smear campaign bankrolled by Gupta millions.

When the death Bell tolls.jpg

The irony of a non-South African family investing in a lily-white international reputation management firm to campaign against white businesses in the country is almost too much to fathom. Public relations professionals across the globe have always had to slog away to show their worth, now in one fell swoop, the world has been shown exactly how PR should not be done.

How do you, as a “reputable” global leader in the communications field allow things to get so out of hand? As Lord Bell said in one of his many (cringe-worthy) interviews, it took him 30 years to build up the business and a year for it to be destroyed. Sir, as the leader of a reputation management firm, you should have known better.

One must wonder if they’ve done this in any other countries where questionable leaders needed to run smear campaigns. How would such an agency ‘win’ a contract with the Guptas without first “demonstrating” how excellent their dirty PR tactics were? How many other countries have bled under a Bell Pottinger smear campaign?

What now? In crisis communication 101, the focus is always on the leadership of the organisation. First, Bell Pottinger’s senior employee Victoria Geoghegan was fired, then Chief Executive Officer, James Henderson resigned after a meek apology to South Africa. Kudos to the Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) in the United Kingdom, which expelled the organisation for five years. The business is now up for sale, one which I cannot imagine anyone touching with a barge pole. The real question is whether these apologies and resignations are enough? To put it simply, it most certainly is not.

With their communication campaign of driving a divide between South Africans, their target audience is people who have been drawn in by fake news and who are now so enraged by ‘white monopoly capital’ and blaming their dire situation on ‘white businesses’. I’m not denying that there is an imbalance, thanks to our chequered past and there is still a lot that needs to be done to get everyone onto an even footing. The focus has, however, been neatly steered away from some of the core issues at hand such as state capture and corruption. For this audience, there is no ‘Bell Pottinger’ so whether or not a guy by the name of ‘James Henderson’ resigned or if the company has been expelled by their professional body makes absolutely no difference to them. A resignation, apology and an expulsion do not remove the fact that fake news was created as part of a sinister smear campaign.

Bell Pottinger needs to pay back the money with interest. Isn’t that what most companies do when there is a crisis? They throw money at a corporate social investment project to show their good side, hoping to be loved again and rebuild their reputation. Although with Bell Pottinger, there is no love lost, nor do I believe there is any turnaround strategy that could save them. They should, however, before that final death knell tolls, be held accountable for their actions and pay back the money, not to the Guptas, but into a fund (and there are many to choose from that do incredibly good work), where impoverished communities within South Africa will positively benefit.

When we measure reputations at Reputation Matters, one of the first places we start with is to understand the business’ values. For example, authenticity and respect are two of our core values. If Bell Pottinger had any scruples, they would have had values in place that would drive their business decisions. Without values to steer the ship, they were tempted by a large retainer from a client requesting a questionable scope of work. What perplexes me is how any firm can willingly take on a new client, like the Guptas, knowing the work they are required to do will result in a conflict of interest with current clients, like Johann Rupert’s Richemont. There is absolutely no respect or authenticity in such behaviour.

Lord Bell has said he had no idea about what was happening on the account, but I battle to believe this. I understand that as the founder of the business, you don’t have a hands-on approach with each account, however, when you’ve signed up such a large client and you’ve admitted to it being one of the largest ones you have, you make it your business to know what they are about as your company is being associated with the work they do. As the leader of Bell Pottinger, Lord Bell knew what was happening and now that the firm has been caught out, he is shifting the blame on to everyone else.

What should their turnaround strategy be? Is there one? I don’t believe that there is, they waited too long.

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