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LAW: Pay Back the Money Bell Pottinger


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AS THE Bell Pottinger scandal dies down, the Public Relations industry in South Africa is reeling to pick up the pieces, says Regine le Roux, Managing Director of Reputation Matters. “PR professionals across the globe have always had to slog away to show their worth to clients, now in one fell swoop, the world has been shown exactly how PR should not be done.”

“After the initial disbelief that a ‘reputation management’ company could behave in this way, we are now left with a number of questions,” says le Roux who is a Reputation Management specialist. “One wonders how Lord Bell, as the leader of a ‘reputable’ global firm could allow activities to get so out of hand and then happily claim ignorance in many of his cringe-worthy interviews.” The PR empire which he and his associates built, took thirty years to reach its peak before it was toppled in less than a year, says le Roux.

“Pitching for business is part of agency life,” says le Roux. “How would such an agency ‘win’ a contract with the Guptas without first ‘demonstrating’ their ability to run dirty PR campaigns for other clients? How many other countries have bled under a Bell Pottinger smear campaign?” wonders le Roux.

While apologies issued after a crisis are a standard communication tool used to regain trust, le Roux makes it clear that in Bell Pottinger’s case this wasn’t enough. “The apology was a case of too little, too late,” she says. Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson issued an apology three months after the firm terminated its contract with the Gupta-owned Oakbay Capital. “A decision to let go of a client is certainly not made without full information, so why did it take three months to issue an apology?” asks le Roux.

So what happens to Bell Pottinger now? “The people who were fed the ‘white capital monopoly’ message are not going to care about an apology, resignation or company liquidation, they are understandably riled up and expect answers and solutions,” says le Roux. “A big ‘hoo haa’ has been made about Bell Pottinger being suspended from the industry body and this should be applauded as too often these bodies don’t appear to take a firm stand against their own members. However, surely there needs to be a way for companies like Bell Pottinger to be taken to task and held accountable?” Le Roux suggests that firms should be forced to pay a fine or invest a considerable amount of their ill-gotten gains back into a good cause.

“A company’s reputation can build or break its business, which is why values are so important,” says le Roux. “Without values to steer the ship, Bell Pottinger were tempted by a large retainer from a client requesting a questionable scope of work. While their unethical activity was kept under wraps, all was well, but when it came to light in the news, they were quite literally caught out with mud on their face.”

Speaking about the importance of strategic alliances le Roux says, “I understand as a founder of a communication business that you don’t have a hands-on approach with each account, however when you’ve signed up such a large client, you make it your business to know what they are about because your company is being associated with the work they do.” On examining the wording of the “unequivocal apology” le Roux says, “The apology actually blames the account manager whom they fired. She is essentially accused of misleading senior management. That’s not an apology, that is blame shifting and the public saw straight through it.”

“The PR industry is not alone as it is forced to do some serious reflection following this scandal,” says le Roux. “As the details of other suspect Gupta contracts are exposed in the media, it appears that the auditing industry will soon have to face a similar reputation building exercise,” she concludes.

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