This week, one of the brightest stars in the public relations constellation, the leading agency Bell-Pottinger, crashed and burned in spectacular style.
Long known as the agency sought out by big clients with the kind of controversial challenges most competitor consultancies would shy away from, Bell-Pottinger was the agency at the end of a long corridor that as a client looking for a saviour you’d travel before ending up knocking on the door to seek help.
Before I say more I should declare two interests in this matter. Firstly that I am an employee of a competitor to Bell-Pottinger and that my own agency has had more than its share of controversial clients and oft criticised business, and secondly that I was a client of Bell-Pottinger in three of my former “in-house” roles.
As both client and competitor I have always admired Bell-Pottinger.
It has benefited from hiring outstanding people and practically created the business of issues management in the UK. Tim Bell always has been a PR person in a class of his own, and he remains a peerless Peer.
One of the tricks Tim had, which so many successful business people have in my experience, was to hire the best people and then let them get on with what they were good at.
I had a CEO once who claimed that his only talent was “to surround myself with great people.” That wasn’t quite true of Lord Bell because at the height of his success he and his partner the (pierless) Piers Pottinger were hands-on operators who helped to create UK PR. So they had many talents as well as hiring the best people.
But as a client I knew when I was hiring Bell-Pottinger I was almost always hiring “the A team.”
I know very well in my business that people buy from people.
The tough stuff
Bell-Pottinger was (and still just about is) a “full service” PR agency in that it covered every aspect of the diverse disciplines of work we tend to clumsily lump together under the banner of “PR” from fluffy consumer and brand PR through to hard-nosed financial, political and corporate work. But it was the controversial end that they were best known for, even before this latest headline grabbing debacle.
At that end of the PR business it can be pretty rough-trade work. I worked with Bell-Pottinger because I’ve never been employed by a business that wasn’t in trouble with an already badly damaged or heavily under fire reputation. I was one of those client who knew the people who could help me would be the tough guys at the end of that long corridor of agencies.
I recall an agency which didn’t (only) issue press releases, organise events, and do whatever it is people do with digital campaigning. they changed minds thought to be set, repositioned clients in the eyes of people who mattered, and helped barriers to business disappear. They made a difference, and the made a difference by being different, which frankly is the only way.
Bell-Pottinger were never cheap with their fees. As my friend Peter Bingle, former chairman of Bell-Pottinger Public Affairs said this week “we were the most expensive,” but grudgingly as a client I always acknowledged that they also “were the best.”
In PR as in all other aspects of life, you get what you pay for. If you want the best, you pay the most. They were not cheap in any other way either. This is an agency which provided clients with the highest quality work.
Sadly the same cannot be said of some of the rather cheap remarks levelled at Bell-Pottinger in its moment of crisis by people in the PR trade, who themselves seem to have achieved nothing comparable with the people they attack.
A right to advocacy
Tim Bell’s approach to controversial client work has always been to take the advocates’ line. He has argued that as everybody is entitled to legal representation in a court of law, so everybody is entitled to PR representation in the court of public opinion.
This has often been cast as an attitude in conflict with many of the ‘how to do business ethically’ positions taken by others in PR. There is a contrasting school of thought now with growing support that PR should be a force for good.
People who take such a position tend to be the ones who say PR agencies should only work for the righteous client, or at least the client they in their wisdom deem to be so.
The business of perception
My own view is that truth and lies, right and wrong, good and bad are all relative judgements. Subjectively we may rule a client or type of business falls in one or the other camps, but as in the trade of PR itself, these are subjective matters of perception, not of absolute reality.
The very business of PR, at this tough stuff end of the trade, is about presenting different truths differently – it is the business of perception and persuasion. In that context, I think that Lord Bell’s advocacy argument still holds good.
That said, clearly things went badly wrong with Bell-Pottinger’s work in South Africa. Nobody in PR is going to stand up and defend their practices. Like the burglar caught with the bag of swag over his shoulder, Bell-Pottinger has been “banged to rights” on this one.
If Bell-Pottinger were a client in trouble, they’d need another good agency to help them out on this one. I know of one by the way, but no matter.
Becoming the story
And that is really why this bright star as burned out in such dramatic style. Bell-Pottinger has committed three cardinal sins in the world of PR.
The first is they were caught. This was an inexplicable failure in business leadership, management and governance – never mind about namby-pamby ethics.
The second is they failed to save, protect or recover their own reputation as they would for a client.
And third, they became the story. In the world of PR Thou Shalt Not Become The Story.
All of that said, I am sad that so many people who work in PR are so gleefully dancing on the (almost certainly soon to become) grave of a once great agency. Work at this end of PR is always work in the shadows and of many shades of grey. It is never black and white.
In my opinion, those who criticise Bell-Pottinger with such black and white certainty of their own convictions either are very clever and insightful people who are better at spotting such problems without hindsight than I am, or they are people who have never worked at this end of the trade.
It is a rough trade, and will always be so.
I do not condone Bell-Pottinger’s actions in South Africa or the seeming lack of governance that allowed it. But I see the demise of a great business with the best people as a matter for sadness not delight.
It seems to me that many people who work in PR have been quick to jump on the oh-so-ethical bandwagon of self-righteousness, keen to kick a competitor when they are down.
But in reality (not just perception) everybody knew the kind of work that made Bell-Pottinger great. Everybody knew what kinds of things are done in the name of “PR” for want of a better label. And everybody knows where the money came from that finances the club of people who hastened Bell-Pottinger’s demise.
I view that demise as a very sad day for those who work in the PR trade. So, I’m not in the lynch mob.