Bell Pottinger scandal is the sad finale of a once-great communicator
It appears to be breaking up into its global constituent parts, with Asia going its own way under Piers Pottinger in Singapore, and the Middle East looking to set up as an independent entity. This must be a bit like how the end of the British Empire felt.
Cue schadenfreude — and a large dose of hypocrisy — in many parts of the world’s press. The Guardian newspaper of London has taken particular delight in turning the knife, mainly because of the firm’s “very rich and unsavory” client list, as it called it last week.
Bell Pottinger over the years had specialized in helping what the PR business calls “challenging” clients, which means ones whose point of view would rarely get a moment’s serious attention from the traditional media.
Chilean dictators, east European kleptocrats, central Asian despots — they all got taken on the books of Bell Pottinger. It is ironic that the case that seems to be bringing the firm down — their handling of the Gupta family in South Africa — actually featured one of the less controversial clients the firm has had over the years, at least in the demonology of the left: An Asian business family supporting a democratically elected African president.
Lord Bell shot to prominence when he masterminded the PR for three successful general election campaigns for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. That success got him a big portfolio of blue-chip clients, most of whom were in tune with, even products of, the Thatcherite philosophy and were keen to be associated with the man himself. Incidentally, that is also the reason the long-memoried journalists at The Guardian hate him so much.
I got to know Lord (then plain Sir Tim) Bell pretty well in those years, and subsequently in the UAE, where the firm played a big part in the early success of Emirates airline’s corporate image-making. He was always good company and engaging, and was full of the most important qualities a PR should have: Enough proximity to the client to be able to speak with authority on his or her behalf; and an understanding of how media works and journalists think.
The same qualities applied, incidentally, to the affable Piers Pottinger.
They had no worries about the “very rich and unsavory” clients. Their wealth meant they could pay the bills, of course, which could be substantial.
The public relations firm’s operation in the Middle East looks better off than the disaster in London, and could form the nucleus of a decent stand-alone business.
As for the “unsavory” clients, Bell had a very interesting and unusual response which tells us a lot about the Gupta affair. Everybody, he believed, had the right to the best PR representation they could afford. In that respect, he believed, the communications business was like the law, or the accounting profession — you deserved the best that money could buy.
Why didn’t he have any left-wing clients then? Because they did not want him, he would explain, with all his right-wing baggage. Was there anybody he would not represent? Yes, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, he would answer. (I never really understood why).
The cracks appeared when the two struck up a business relationship with James Henderson, another PR man but in a different mold, by all accounts. (I have never met him). While Bell and Pottinger were whispering persuasively over long lunches at swanky restaurants in Mayfair, London, Henderson was apparently analyzing spreadsheets and business models. Or so the legend has it.
Bell says he wanted no part of the Gupta business, implying it was Henderson’s hunger for fees that drove that particular client acquisition.
When he was confronted on the BBC’s “Newsnight” program with an email where he described clinching the Gupta business as a “great success” and agreeing to “oversee” the relationship, Bell gave perhaps the least persuasive performance of his professional life. It was a sad finale for a once-great communicator.
The business in the Middle East looks better off than the London disaster. It apparently had no contact with the Guptas (even though the Indian family do have business connections in the region), and was run according to different systems and procedures.
Executives in the UAE are hoping the administrators BDO will be kind enough to let them cut loose without too much trouble and expense. The UAE-based client list has changed over the years, away from the big-ticket government accounts to a more manageable list of retained business, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and (in the early stages) Saudi Arabia, insiders say. It could form the nucleus of a decent stand-alone business, if given a chance.
What are the lessons for the PR business? Rather than grand Guardianesque judgments about the nature of communications, the changing role of journalism, and the role of ethics in business life, I would say there are two overriding imperatives: Stay away from anything that smacks of racism. It will always rebound on you.
And don’t go on “Newsnight.” It is on too late.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai
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