By Steve McComish

It isn’t every day that we see a PR agency making the front pages of the national newspapers in its own right, but that’s exactly what happened to Bell Pottinger this week.

Sadly, the reason why the agency found itself all over page 1 of the FT and City AM (as well as the TV news and the inside pages of every other paper) was nothing to be proud of – quite the reverse.

If you’re interested enough in PR to read this blog you already know the backstory. Bell Pottinger, one of the most powerful and impossibly glamorous agencies of them all, left disgraced with its own reputation in tatters after allegedly stirring up racial tensions in South Africa for the gain of paying clients.

The fall-out from the story could take months even years to become fully apparent. Not least the impact it will have on the PR industry as a whole.

Even as the PRCA positioned itself as the industry’s no nonsense regulator by taking the decisive and laudable action of throwing Bell Pottinger out (well done) media pundits were lining up to attack not just that one agency but our whole industry.

On Channel 4 News last night I heard a presenter asking the ridiculous question, “Isn’t it the case that anyone who needs the service of a PR agency has something to hide?” NO, of course not.

Perceptions of public relations have come a long way in the past ten years but an event like this could be catastrophic for the image and reputation of the industry.

Bell Pottinger is not a typical PR agency and their actions should not tarnish the entire industry. No way, not even for a second. That media commentators even think it is acceptable to ask a question like that is absolutely shocking to me.

An Agency Apart

This was always an agency apart from the rest. One which traded on the name of its founders and their elite connections.

When I was a young journalist starting out in my career Bell Pottinger was the agency with the big glamorous accounts; airlines, foreign governments, you name it.

Back in the late 1990s two Bell Pottinger executives invited me and a group of reporters on a trip to Dubai where we were guests of Emirates Airlines and were able to visit the Burj Al Arab and many other opulent locations.

The Bell Pottinger staff were smooth, cool and reeked of money. We envied them, even the lowliest tea boy probably made more than a junior reporter. They were the reason I wanted to work in PR.

The agency’s co-founder Tim Bell is PR royalty, a living legend of comms. Always in the pages of PR Week and always so insightful.

Yet even he appeared shambolic this week as he struggled to answer Kirsty Wark’s questions on Newsnight as his iPhone kept ringing.

He did admit though that he thought this story would almost certainly mean the end of his agency. If that turns out to be the case (and it’s difficult to imagine a turn-around) what a fall it will be.

Proof that no organisation can ever take its reputation for granted, perhaps especially not those whose task it is to protect and build the reputations of others.


© London PR 2017