The demise of Bell Pottinger

Opinion - What's clear is that Bell Pottinger had lost its way, writes Anne-Claude Wenger, founder and CEO of Alston & Clayden
South African president and South African ruling party African National Congress leader, Jacob Zuma, answers questions from Parliament Members during a session of questions to the government, on March 17, 2016 at the South African General Assembly in Cape Town. Shock revelations about a wealthy Indian family's interference in South African government affairs set embattled President Jacob Zuma up for a high-pressure appearance in parliament Thursday. The admission by deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that he was offered the top job in the treasury by the Gupta family caused outrage in a country already alarmed by a series of corruption scandals. / AFP / DAVID HARRISON (Photo credit should read DAVID HARRISON/AFP/Getty Images)
By Anne-Claude Wenger
Wed 13 Sep 2017 05:11 PM

The news of Bell Pottinger’s demise after two decades in the business was disappointing but not surprising.

The world famous PR agency is known for having had many controversial clients – from dictators to corrupt governments – but it also had an enviable list of top notch clients that read like the who’s who of the world’s most iconic companies.

It was notorious for jumping into bed with notorious figures and companies and it was far from perfect, but it wasn’t exactly the epitome of wickedness either.

In the case of the campaign work Bell Pottinger conducted on behalf of the Gupta family in South Africa, which is at the heart of a scandal engulfing President Jacob Zuma, there was something else at play and it’s hard to condone the way in which Bell Pottinger went about “furthering their client’s interests.”

Steven Lipin, the former head of Brunswick’s US operation, summed it up perfectly in a recent article in the Financial Times: “As you grow, what protects you are your integrity, strong values and a strong culture. That doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. But making a mistake and having an ethical breach are two very different things.”

What’s clear is that Bell Pottinger had lost its way and should have known that the campaign in question was bound to raise a few eyebrows sooner or later. It crossed the line, and it wasn’t the first time.

But you don’t get a seat at the top table for being average at what you do. For all its shortcomings, Bell Pottinger showed the world what PR could do. It demonstrated to great effect that PR was a force to be reckoned with.

It showed its competitors, big and small, that PR was more about the public than the media and about building and maintaining long term, meaningful relationships.

It is important that Bell Pottinger doesn’t become a scapegoat for the unpopularity of an industry that’s been facing an identity crisis for years.

The industry is moving towards an increasingly integrated communication world, constantly reinventing itself to stay current with its clients' needs, preferences and expectations and meet the new challenges that emerge.

As the industry continues to change form and become more complex, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the guiding principle. It is our job to add value.

Anne-Claude Wenger is founder and CEO of Alston & Clayden.

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