When PR Goes Wrong: The Case of Bell Pottinger


Whiles the most seasoned spin doctors would see a backdoor to any situation that looks bad on a person or an organisation, not all situations lend themselves to the quick fixes of public relations.

The recent meltdown of British PR firm Bell Pottinger has brought into view what happens when public relations goes terribly wrong. And in this case, the London based PR firm appears to have lost the steam to ride out of this storm.

The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in the UK recently expelled the PR giant from the association resulting in catastrophic consequences for the firm. Bell Pottinger, was accused of whipping up racial tensions through its South African PR campaign for Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy and influential Gupta family. Since these allegations surfaced, the firm has lost several of its high-profile clients, received a five-year suspension from the regulator and it has also gone into administration.

The campaign which reportedly sought to stir up anger about white monopoly of capital in South Africa was considered by the regulator to be unethical and unprofessional. Giving the recent history of xenophobic-related violence in South Africa, such a campaign is sinister and must be condemned in the strongest possible way.

What is apparent from the Bell Pottinger case is the need for PR firms to strike a balance between the ethics of the industry and the needs of their clients. Many industry players have attributed the firm’s success to its desire to take on seemingly controversial campaigns and clients including Syrian first lady Asma Al-Assad, the Pinochet Foundation, FW de Klerk when he was running the presidential race against Nelson Mandela and Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murder.

In 2016, a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggested the firm had been paid some $500 million by the Pentagon to carry out a top-secret campaign in Iraq after the US invasion. Revelations by Martin Wells, a former employee, that fake videos were churned out in the campaign cast a shadow over the PR firm.

The expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the PRCA has raised questions that many PR firms would be grappling with for some time to come. How far can PR firms go to fulfil the needs of their clients and how easy will it be for them to turn down the eye-watering figures that some controversial clients will be willing to pay for a campaign?


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