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Weaving a tangled web

05 September 2017 | Lloyd Hughes

PR often gets a bad rep. It’s an industry notoriously poor at PR’ing its own image.

It hasn’t helped that the name most synonymous with PR in recent years – Max Clifford – has been convicted of multiple sex offences. Now, Clifford, the assumed industry poster boy for anyone who doesn’t know much about PR, is generally described by PR practitioners as a ‘publicist’ and not a bona fide PR professional. This is usually done in a bid to wash hands of him. The terms, however, are inextricably linked, so whatever you think of Clifford, it’s unavoidable that he’s plonked in the PR bracket. Regardless of how he went about managing the reputation of his clients, that is exactly what he did.

So, Clifford’s downfall, whilst satisfying for most, wasn’t great PR for the wider industry.

One inescapably genuine example of ‘bona fide’ PR practitioners though is Bell Pottinger. The firm is an industry heavyweight, with over 200 staff based in offices all around the world and ranked at number 13 in the top 150 UK PR consultancies for 2017 (down from 11th in 2016).

That ranking is now set to disappear following Bell Pottinger’s expulsion from the PRCA trade body, thanks to it bringing the PR and communications industry into disrepute. The expulsion came about after Bell Pottinger undertook a racially divisive South African campaign on behalf of the Gupta family, which has strong and allegedly corrupt links with Jacob Zuma.  

Having looked into it, the Gupta scandal currently raging around the firm defies belief. South Africa is a country riven with societal problems, so for an essentially British PR firm to go in there and sow discord around #WhiteMonopolyCapital is frankly appalling, and has caused understandable outrage. The shadow of colonialism and apartheid lies heavily on South Africa, something that Bell Pottinger looked to manipulate to its clients’ advantage. The more I hear about the case, the more astonished and repelled I become. It’s PR’s dark arts at their most stygian.

Watch this video of Lord Bell, the eponymous founder of Bell Pottinger on Newsnight. It’s staggeringly bad. That someone who has risen to the top of the PR tree can sit there and give an interview like that is genuinely jaw-dropping. It’s an absolute car crash from start to finish and even has his phone going off at intervals. It’s almost like Lord Bell thinks that because he’s a PR supremo, the basic essentials of media interview 101 simply don’t apply to him. Either that, or he genuinely doesn’t give a f***.

Who, watching that, would opt to take up Bell Pottinger’s PR services in light of it? He may have stepped down, but the firm will have his modus operandi ingrained within it, which is enough to put anyone off. He states in the interview that it looks like the end for Bell Pottinger. I can’t see anyone disputing that.

PR has a bad rep for sleaze and manipulation, with practitioners often portrayed as spin doctors at best and liars, charlatans and con-artists at worst.

This reputation for deception is one thing that’s never sat well with me working in PR. I’m pretty much the most pathetic liar going – I blame my Catholic education and subsequent Catholic guilt. Even the whitest of lies leaves me sweating, facing sleepless nights and with a facial expression that telegraphs my desire to blurt out the truth: “Ok, ok, I had the last of the milk!” I’m a truly awful liar.

So, the murky world of Bell Pottinger style PR really isn’t for me. But, unfortunately, tawdry affairs such as this, serve to reinforce the industry stereotype, making it harder for PRs with a firm moral compass and strong sense of ethics to be believed.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.