Bell Pottinger: A Lesson in Effective PR

Bell Pottinger

Opinion piece by Karey Evett, owner of Wired Communications PR

While South Africa reels in continued astonishment, I’m hoping that the current spate of news around our contemptible president’s retention of his abusive power does not diminish the Bell Pottinger story in any way.

I love the fact that Bill Gates said years ago that if he was down to his last dollar, he’d spend it on PR.  It’s reassuring to know that a man of this stature believes in the power of public and media relations.  And what I now think is that any nay-sayers about PR out there should be forever silenced because, while the horrors of the campaign wrought by London PR firm, Bell Pottinger in South Africa and the full might of their messaging is felt, no-one can deny that what they have done has been pretty much 100% effective in PR terms.  Heaven forbid, effectiveness should not be measured through such dastardly tactics but their campaign has, without doubt, hit at the heart of the nation and is now being felt at every level of South African society – rich and poor, black and white.

As a PR professional who takes pride in honourable, verifiable and proper agency, with no spin, I’ve been watching the effects of the Bell Pottinger campaign which has sought, in simple terms, to destabilize South Africa and actively promote racist tension through the use of inflammatory messaging.  It’s been horribly successful.

But while we rage and rant and rave on about how awful this is, one can’t help but be impressed by how this is a thoroughly good example of PR.  When you get your message right, deliver it right, instigate some activism and get some heated conversations going, the tactics are pure tinder for a massive wildfire – one that barely needs any flame fanning because the winds of discontent were blowing already anyway.

Had it not been for a group of brave and hard-working investigative journalists who released the Gupta emails, we may have full-blown civil war on our hands here right now.  But while the Gupta leaked emails has assuaged some, the rot has set in, the fire’s started and lots of damage has been done … because people tend to believe what they hear and read.

As Bell Pottinger tries to mitigate its actions with a meek and slitheringly evasive apology, what this agency now needs is a thumpingly good PR campaign for itself – because, surely, clients will not want to work with them now?   Certainly, the Guptas – with whom Bell Pottinger parted company in April – are now handling their own media relations and seem to be accepting every interview request so that they may go on record and just simply deny everything, referring with ease to their leaked 300 000+ emails as ‘fake’.

This all makes me think that there’s obviously room for agencies to work with people who only care about the money, about the power and about the effect and impact of their work – as long as they’re not called to book on it.   Like attracts like and Bell Pottinger seems to be able to come out with unconvincing platitudes and almost to get away with it.  I asked, in a recent email to the agency’s CEO, James Henderson, how he slept at night.  Of course I didn’t expect a response now did I get one … and now I realise that he probably sleeps easily and very well too because he believes he’s done nothing wrong.  He fired his partner on the business, he issued an empty statement of apology and he denies any knowledge of how this campaign could have been anything other than a response to a corporate brief. He’s wiped his hands of the issue, effectively, and is paying a bunch of lawyers to get him out of the dwang.

In my non-realistic dream world, I would like to think that Bell Pottinger will be forced out of business and that their name will be forever held up as an example of how not to do PR.  But actually that’s not right because they’ve been so effective and there’s always going to be room for messengers of negative force who will be as hungry and greedy as their clients are.  Corruption, war-mongering, greed and power mania is spreading like wild-fire – and who better to spread the scourge than a bunch of very good messengers.