Show 52 – Analysis of the Bell Pottinger fallout

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This episode discussed the fallout of the PRCA’s decision to expel Bell Pottinger from its membership following investigations into the agency’s dealings in South Africa with the Gupta family.

Bell Pottinger has subsequently been put into administration with a number of its 250 staff being made redundant.

Russell Goldsmith’s guests were:

Photo of Francis Ingham, Russell Goldsmith, Claire Walker, Mark Borkowski discussing Bell Pottinger

L-R: Francis Ingham, Russell Goldsmith, Claire Walker, Mark Borkowski

As a quick summary of the news leading up to the podcast, Bell Pottinger had been accused of stirring up racial tension in South Africa, all aimed to draw attention away from the ​Gupta family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their links to President Jacob Zuma.

Bell Pottinger had also been accused of operating fake blogs and Twitter accounts to help drive these campaigns and had suggested that Oakbay, the Gupta’s company, doctored its Wikipedia page to show itself in a better light.

Francis began by saying that he believed the PRCA’s decision to expel Bell Pottinger did a service to the PR and Communications industry by showing that they do have ethical codes, that they are enforced and no matter how famous and big you are [as an agency], the PRCA will expel you if you break those ethical codes.  He added that had the PRCA done anything other than expel Bell Pottinger, the industry would be being held in disrepute. That said, the coverage generated from the decision, whilst very positive for the PRCA, had also generated quite a lot of negative comments about the PR industry in general, which raised the question as to whether the PR industry had a PR problem, at least with regards to its ethics.  However, Claire thinks that post Leveson [inquiry], perhaps there is more seriousness about ethics than there ever has been, but she feels that by a long way, the majority of firms behave vary appropriately, but it would be good to ‘flush out’ those who are behaving inappropriately, but that takes people to make complaints to her committee on the PRCA, who can then deal with it.  Mark agreed with Claire, but his concern is that there is a growing global [PR] industry around, what he classed as, some very dubious countries and believes it is difficult to police these sort of people, but what it has done for many brands is made them look at the way they deploy PR.  However, he added that as PR has changed towards more digital channels, it has meant that it’s open to massive exploitation and sadly he feels that sometimes, as money walks in the door, ethics walks out!  Francis also added that the Bell Pottinger case was a rare example of malpractice in the industry and in fact, the average PR practitioners in the UK will never even see the kind of work that Oakbay represented.

This all lead to whether or not the industry needs to be better regulated as currently you can set up and practice PR and not need to be a member of an industry body, be that the PRCA or indeed the CIPR.  In fact, Mark claimed that only recently, he was with a powerful and influential PR agency who, when Mark questioned why they weren’t a member of the PRCA, said that they don’t want to be thrown out of an organisation!  However, Francis said that of the top 20 PR agencies in the UK, 15 are indeed members of the PRCA, but his recommendation to any clients who use agencies that are not members to ask them why they decide not to be regulated by their professional body.

We received a three part question for the panel from David Philips via the FuturePRoof Facebook Group who asked “The universities are beginning to teach ethics in PR but there is not much by way of basic research to draw on. E.g. ‘The Media’ is now a very broad church from a Twitter bot to the FT. What then, do we mean by ‘a free press’ in defence of democracy? How then can we instil ethics into AI based bots? Who is doing the research or is this a bear trap waiting to happen to a latter-day Bell Pottinger?”

In response, Mark said that whilst traditional media has a declining reach in the UK and US, it has a huge amount of effect and so we need to focus on those that have the genuine influence to ‘move the needle’ on opinion and that exists in blogs too. Francis agreed and said that the power of traditional media and how the story deepened and escalated within it was one of the reasons Bell Pottinger went into administration and shows that ‘old fashioned’ media still has the power to change the fortunes of companies.

But in respect of instilling ethics into AI bots, Mark believes it’s not about the fact that likes and hashtags etc. are training computers to be more human, what we’ve got to start fighting is us stopping becoming robotic, because he feels the tech giants want us to be that! Claire added that with all these things, human beings will make it what it is, so if you are training your AI bots in a bad way, then you might end up in a bad place with it. She therefore thinks that the reliance here is in the human beings to be behaving appropriately.

As for whether this is a bear trap, Claire doesn’t believe so, so long as people pay attention to what has happened.

A second listener question was submitted by Aileen Thompson, Executive Director of the ABPI, who asked “What three steps would each panellist have advised Bell Pottinger to take to avoid the current outcome?” 

Claire was first to response with the following:

  1. Take heed – she said they had some warnings
  2. What were they doing working for Oakbay in the first place? Did they do enough to find out what was going on there because they should have walked away from it straight away?
  3. If unethical practices are at the core of your business, it’s a sad place to be and she wouldn’t want to work there or engage that agency and so it comes back to getting training on board and refreshing it constantly.

Mark’s response was simpler:

  1. Don’t take the job
  2. Don’t take the job
  3. Don’t take the job

And Frances’ even more so:

  1. Ditto
  2. Ditto
  3. Ditto

The show moved on to the topic of managing a crisis and Francis said that Bell Pottinger’s handling of it was a case study in how not to behave – they didn’t engage, they continually turned down media requests for commentary, locked their twitter account.  He added that when their CEO, James Henderson resigned, Frances said that firstly it leaked out, but even then, whilst it may have said that he was taking responsibility, it went on to say that he was let down by the people he employed, and so Frances didn’t feel there was any real contrition shown, nor did he feel there was any real sign of apologising profusely or believably.

As for why Lord Bell did the interview on Newsnight (below), Mark felt that there was absolutely no need for him to do it and that it was a ‘car crash’.

Mark added that it could have been due to the relationship Lord Bell had with James Henderson, but added that his advice to clients whenever they seek revenge is to dig two graves!

For those interested in reading the PRCA’s Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct, it’s available to download from their website.   Claire also runs an online Ethics in PR training course for the PRCA, available to both members and non-members.

Thanks to Broadcast Specialists markettiers for hosting us and recording the show.

Thanks also to global media intelligence provider CARMA for supporting the show too – please visit carma.com to find out more about how they can help you deliver actionable insights through media monitoring and PR measurement.

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