How PR giant Bell Pottinger made itself look bad

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So … the thing is. Shutterstock

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

The reputation of global PR company Bell Pottinger has suffered a massive blow. The boss has resigned, clients have walked, the firm has been expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) – and it has now put itself up for sale. All because of its work on a controversial contract in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger, which has staff, partners and offices in many parts of the world, is headquartered in London. So when the South African political party the Democratic Alliance wanted to complain about the firm’s activities, the London-based PRCA was its chosen route.

The whole issue of ethics and regulation in public relations is a thorny one. In virtually every country, anyone can call themselves a PR practitioner. I am an accredited practitioner with all sorts of qualifications, but there is nothing in law to stop my neighbour, a plumber, from hanging out a sign saying he is a PR officer, too.

But thanks to a drive from industry professionals there have been efforts to promote ethics and ensure some sort of regulation, which practitioners and companies can choose to sign up to.

In the UK, there is the PRCA (mostly for organisations) and the CIPR (mostly for individual practitioners). Each has codes of conduct and disciplinary processes. Each can censure and expel. Ethical practitioners hope that clients will equate membership with high standards.

The PRCA’s expulsion of Bell Pottinger is the most serious sanction it can take, and follows an investigation, a provisional ruling and an appeal. But now Bell Pottinger is out, and it cannot apply to rejoin for at least five years.

According to PRCA Director General Francis Ingham:

Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications agency into disrepute … The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.

Bell Pottinger was founded in part by Sir Tim (now Lord) Bell in 1987. Advising former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on her presentational style, he became one of the biggest names in PR. The firm did not shy away from controversial clients, who included former South African president FW de Klerk, Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, and the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, after he was accused of murder.

Lord Bell himself resigned from the company last year. And in an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight (which was twice interrupted by his mobile phone ringing) he said this latest episode was “almost certainly” the end.

Experts in keeping up appearances, the firm no doubt regrets the work it carried out for the wealthy Gupta family, which has close links to South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma.

The British PR firm got into trouble with a social media “economic emancipation campaign” in which the phrase “white monopoly capital” was said to have been deliberately, or irresponsibly, used, stirring up racial tension.

South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance accused Bell Pottinger of a “hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race”.

The scandal led to resignations – and the loss of clients. Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, has said it would no longer use Bell Pottinger. A Swiss luxury company headed by a South African businessman, a South African investment group, and Acacia, which owns gold mines in Tanzania, are also reportedly off the books.

The damage to the company’s reputation is immense. While Bell Pottinger did take on work for clients which some of us find offensive or “to be avoided”, there is a difference between a client with a bad reputation deserving some help, and creating a bad reputation through the very act of communication.

Is all publicity still good publicity?

Will nations and companies still want to hire the company in the future? Some will probably take the attitude that recent events do not affect the organisation’s ability to carry out its work.

But will journalists and other PR audiences be ready to accept the firm’s messages? Probably not. The first response of any journalist contacted by a Bell Pottinger spokesperson will surely be to think of this damning incident. It will be tough for any lobbying campaign to carry conviction with the Bell Pottinger name attached.

Of course, being expelled from a professional association does not take away the ability to practice. The Democratic Alliance itself has pointed out that Bell Pottinger can still work in South Africa.

The ConversationBut PR depends on the ability to win client accounts – by convincing them that you will protect and enhance their reputation. It is difficult to see how an organisation which has effectively trashed its own reputation can protect someone else’s.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Who is leading the EU campaign battle so far?

EU flags in front of European Commission

Mid April saw the official start of the campaign to either persuade us to Remain or to Leave when we vote in the European Referendum in June.  The Electoral Commission has designated two organisations as official campaigners.  On the In side is Britain Stronger in Europe.  On the Out side is Vote Leave.

In the last week a new poll showed the Remain side pulling ahead.  But the gap is still small and with weeks of argument still to go, no one can be certain of the result.

Of course the official ten weeks follows months of activity by organisations which launched last year.  So it’s possible to get a sense of what the campaigns have been like so far, and what they might do, or need to do, in future.

As a Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, I’ve been taking a close interest in what the campaigns have been doing.  Specifically I’ve been looking at press releases to get a sense of proactivity, levels of activism in general, choice of spokesperson and use of language.  And while clearly we are now about to see things step up a gear, this early insight is useful.

Over a period of five weeks, up to 8 April, I looked at everything in the “news” section of the Britain Stronger in Europe website and the Vote Leave website.  I began by looking simply at language, but soon found that these sections provided information about a much wider range of factors.

So what did I find?

Before going any further, a key point is that the level of press release/news production by Vote Leave is noticeably higher than that by Stronger In during this period.

Firstly, both campaigns have been more reactive than proactive.  This means using other events, which might be Euro negative, Euro positive or Euro neutral to make statements.  A key example of this is the Tata Steel crisis which was used by Vote Leave to launch a number of statements.

When you work on a campaign, there are always more external events than events of your own.  This is simply the maths. So I am not surprised that the campaigns were more reactive.  What did surprise me however was the proactivity score.  Before looking, I would have assumed that Stronger In would be the more proactive of the two.  This was because Vote Leave, by its very nature, is reacting to a state of affairs.  In fact, Vote Leave showed significantly more proactivity than its opponent.  Often this proactivity consisted of collating existing statistics and re-presenting it, with planned timing, as a dossier, or report or statement.

Secondly, there has been a difference in press releases in the type of spokesperson chosen.  When I refer to spokesperson in this context, I mean the individual quoted.  Stronger In has mainly used UK politicians.  Vote Leave has mainly used campaign officials. Now this is initially surprising.  Those of us who have worked on political campaigns know that we are meant to use the actual politician when using quotes.  However in the case of Vote Leave, the campaign official used, in virtually every case, is Matthew Elliot.  He runs the campaign, but more importantly is the former head of the Taxpayers Alliance.  In this role, Mr Elliot became well known to journalists and was ever-ready with a quote.  This means he is perhaps more suitable in some cases as a spokesperson than those politicians signed up to the cause.

There may however be another feature to be deduced from this.  Using a campaign official will definitely be quicker than tracking down a politician to approve a quote.  This is however only possible when there is not a complicated sign-off process involving those politicians.  So it seems Vote Leave is simply better equipped for speed and this spokesperson-use is both a sign of speed and a way of making it possible.

The importance of speed in a campaign cannot be overstated.  Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s winning campaigns set great store by this.  Vote Leave’s news page helpfully records not just the date of publication but the timing.  Stronger In does not record the time.  But it is possible to make a judgement about speed (particularly speed of response) by looking at whether statements come out on the day of relevance or a day or so later.  In each case in which I was able to compare speed, Vote Leave was faster.

Thirdly, I was interested in the types of statements being made.  US academic William Benoit, in his Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse, argues that political contest statements fit into three categories.  These are Acclaim, Attack and Defence.  This is a little too simple for UK elections and contests in which abstention and differential turnout plays a part.  But it is a useful way of categorising output.  I expected Stronger In’s material to be mainly Acclaim – “Your Life is better in Europe” and Vote Leave to be mainly Attack – “Europe is doing you harm”.  In fact both campaigns’ statements are more weighted towards Attack, the attacks mainly being about the other side’s desired position, statements or personalities.  An example of this is Stronger In’s release about the Boris Johnson speech which made a “mistake every eighty seconds”.

Finally I looked at language.  The language of speeches is almost always more powerful than the simple language of press releases.  And those releases with powerful language tended to be those using speech excerpts.  There are too many themes to go into here, but I want to focus on patriotism.  Patriotism is often heavily used in political campaigning and I would have expected this to mainly feature in Vote Leave communications.  During the period studied however, it was Stronger In that was making most use of this message.  The clearest example is a release using an extract from a March speech by Andy Burnham in Liverpool. He says:

“I say to everyone – don’t diminish this great country of ours. Don’t let them define how we are seen by the rest of the world…”

“Let’s fight them on the beaches of what it means to be British and reclaim that ground. Let’s be true to what we’ve always stood for and always should…”

With a phrase such as “fight them on the beaches” Burnham and the campaign are making a clear effort to link patriotism and pride in Britain with the Stronger In cause.

So what now?

To succeed, Stronger In needs to get faster, and since 15th April there are signs that is has.

To succeed, Vote Leave needs to harness the patriotism of those likely to support it, and since 15th April there are signs it is doing so.

It is all to play for.  And what a fascinating way to study PR and Campaigning initiatives and messages.

What now for the BBC?

© Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

BBC senior managers probably hoped the Smith report (published Feb 25th) would lead to a day or two of heavy duty media work and then business as usual.

Like many of these key moments though, it’s impossible to draw a line. The ongoing story about Tony Blackburn is likely to run for a while. Campaigners claiming the report to be a whitewash are not likely to be silenced. And it’s hard to see how this won’t be taken up over and over again in Parliament. In the context of the forthcoming Charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s views on the BBC, this is a reputational problem that won’t be going away any day soon.

In one sense, there is little the Comms people at the BBC can do to stop, or deal with, much of this. It is probably wise to let some issues play themselves out.

But there are strategies the Corporation can adopt, and perhaps already is adopting, to navigate a way through the problems it faces.

When looking at the topic of reputational damage, you can’t do better than check with William Benoit’s Image Repair Theory.

Benoit has taken all the possible responses to reputation damage and put them into a handy classification list. These include denial – “its not true” shifting the blame “nothing to do with me guv” and mortification “yep I did it and I’m really sorry”. Now obviously the first two strategies here are not open to the BBC. But many of Benoit’s categories are.

The first real response by the BBC was Director General Tony Hall’s statement to the press conference immediately after publication of the Smith report. So what did he say and how did he say it?

The speech begins with a clear example of the mortification strategy. An apology and admission of responsibility. There was, of course, no other option here. But it’s instructive to see how long this passage is. A lot of crisis communications statements start this way with an admission but swiftly move on to next steps. Hall, in contrast, takes 29 lines or paragraphs. Look at some of the quotes.

“So today we say sorry. We let you down and we know it.”

“A serial rapist and a predatory sexual abuser both hid in plain sight at the BBC for decades…”

“The scale and nature of what they did was truly terrible.

The way Savile used his celebrity to promise access to excitement and fun, and then grotesquely exploited it. The oppressive power of his fame and his physical presence. The sense that no one would believe a complaint. Even in their own families, survivors felt alone. The idea that he was known as King Jimmy – there was no escape from him – and, I quote, “no one will believe you”.

Hall’s speech then makes use of what Benoit would refer to as Corrective Action. Depending on context this can range from replacing a broken product right through to a complete change in the organisation. Hall stresses what has already been done and what the BBC plans to do.

“But let me also be clear: since I became Director-General, we haven’t been standing still – we have made this a priority – and there is much we have done already:

“We now have a new child protection policy, shared across the industry, and a detailed procedure for complaints.

“We have child protection advisers, working together across the organisation.

“We have also put in place an improved whistle-blowing policy, supported by an independent investigations unit.

“And we’ve brought in a wide-ranging set of measures to encourage people to raise concerns about bullying and harassment – with a confidential hotline, independent experts assigned to cases and a service to allow mediation to take place wherever possible.”

A third Benoit category is that of Reducing Offensiveness. There are several variations , one being called Bolstering. Bolstering basically translates as “there are good things about me/about my actions too”. So if Bill Clinton were talking about Monica Lewinsky, he might admit the act but also talk about the great things he was doing as President. Or if a company had manufactured a faulty car, it might talk about the speed with which it organised a recall. In this case there are small elements of Bolstering in Hall’s speech. Given the context, this could never have been the major approach, but the stress on what the BBC has already done can be categorised this way as can this quote.

Referring to an external review he said: “They found that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that our whistle-blowing policy ranks well compared to other organisations. But they also made 53 recommendations for improvement. Of those, 51 are now complete, one is underway and in one case we have agreed to take forward what needs to be done in a different way.”

However, given the context, Hall was 100% correct to focus almost entirely on Mortification and Corrective Action as his strategies.

So, what now for BBC Communicators?

There is a danger in being too proactive in announcing every move towards change. While being open and transparent matters , it is important that the BBC does not come across as “bullish” about its reform actions. It would be better for future announcements to be seen in the context of wider developments. And of course Lord Hall has flagged up his plans to make announcements on structural change later this year.

The tone of questions at the press conference showed that there will be a hunt for senior heads. Some of the journalists pursued lines naming specific BBC executives. This means the BBC should expect the manhunt to continue for quite some time. It’s important for the Corporation not to get drawn into defending individuals (although simple statements of fact will be needed in some cases)

Relationships with survivors and those representing them will be key over the next months, or even years. Hall has already talked about working with at least one organisation, and of the BBC being in listening mode. But the Smith report has been described as a whitewash, and not just by campaigners but by some who have worked at or for the BBC.

The problem of course is that the BBC is not the report’s author. However, the Corporation is the only organisation that can deal with these accusations. Hall and his colleagues will need to find ways of showing that they are going beyond the report and beyond its recommendations . To be fair, this was the tone of his press conference. But this is very tricky as some survivors may feel justice is only served by particular individuals being named .

I used to think that the least desirable job in Public Relations was press officer for Network Rail. I suspect today many today would put Head of Comms for the BBC at the top of that list. It will be instructive to see how the Corporation manages its communications around this issue, and around its future, as we near Charter Renewal season.

Paula Keaveney’s blog was originally published in Influence, from the CIPR.

Photo:  © Copyright Christine Matthews and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

EU Referendum Campaign – Should we stay or should we go?

If there’s one book you’ll find on most politicians’ bookshelves it’s Drew Westen’s The Political Brain.  This 2007 work said that facts and logical arguments are not enough in political communication.  Even those who are hyper-logical make emotion-based decisions.  And if politicians or campaigns speak to feelings, they are more likely to succeed.  Think back to Gordon Brown’s often statistic-laden statements and contrast with Tony Blair’s emotional, but often fact-free passages.  It’s clear which cut through to the audience.

With this in mind I have looked at  communications by both sides in the debate around Europe.  Should we stay or should we go?    This is an area of contested fact and we’ve already seen a blizzard of arguments. But as the referendum date (23 June) is now known, it’s useful to see how both sides’ comms are shaping up.

There is more than one group on each side.   The Electoral Commission will make two of these “official” shortly. But we don’t need to look at every single campaign group to get a sense of what strategies are being pursued

Britain Stronger in Europe looks set to be the official Remain group.  BSE (slightly unfortunate choice of initials) has already attracted an impressive list of supporters.  Field operations (that’s handing out leaflets and knocking on doors to you and me) have started.  But the front window currently is the website.  So what sense of communication and messaging does this give us?

The first thing that sprung to mind when I looked at www.strongerin.org was British Airways!  It feels very corporate (unlike my sense of what an active campaign normally looks like). The slogan, that Britain will be Stronger, Safer and Better Off, if we stay in Europe, is prominent and repeated.  Front page material included (on Sunday 21st Feb) two “self-interest” type messages and two attacks on, or challenges to, the opposing camp.  A sign-up form for potential supporters is given much space.

Some key components of active campaigning are missing here.  As of 12 noon on Sunday 21st, the website was reporting that the organisation hoped “to see the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package shortly”. Now I know that this is from a press release issued a few days earlier but given that David Cameron’s announcement came on the Friday night, the lack of a speedy update or editing job should concern campaign managers.

The attack material consists of a challenge to the other side to spell out the likely outcomes if Britain withdraws from the EU and an “aha we got you” type release reporting statements by prominent Brexit supporters.  This second piece focuses on whether Britain would be able to take part in the single market post-withdrawal.  It’s not a bad subject. In fact it’s a very good and key subject.  But here it’s presented in an overly technical way in which the main message is somewhat lost. (I was itching to rewrite this!)

As a reader, I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by the messages on this site.  It felt very safe, almost uncommitted in parts.  Someone already supporting the Remain message would find helpful material, but a neutral reader would, I suspect, stay neutral.

On the Brexit side we have Vote Leave and this campaign was quicker to react to the Cameron announcement. In fact its press release is timed 10.01 pm on 20 Feb which is a whole minute or so after David Cameron’s announcement started!   Leave also had the Michael Gove announcement lined up so was able to post a lot more news more quickly over the weekend. (Surprisingly, the Boris Johnson announcement does not appear on the Leave front page or news section as of 22 February. This may be because he has yet to formally contact the campaign, or because of agreements with the Daily Telegraph, for whom Boris writes a column).

The first thing anyone visiting the  Leave website sees is a sum of money, increasing  roughly  once a second, which is described as  the UK’s total contributions to the EU.  We don’t know the start point for this sum, but that niggle aside it is a very clear piece of communication. And is of course to be expected from a campaign run by a former head of the Tax Payers Alliance.

It’s not just money though.  Frankly a message that is only about money won’t cut through to emotions.   A short video about British ”heroes” is clearly designed to reinforce pride in a distinct, shared identity.  Winston Churchill’s appearance was 100 percent expected, but we also see Emmeline Pankhurst and Alan Turing among the personalities featured.   It’s tempting to argue about inclusions or exclusions from material like this, but the existence of this video is significant for the messages this campaign clearly wants to communicate.

Website names, the actual words that will appear on a url, can be key evidence of the core of a campaign’s message.  Vote Leave’s name is not Vote Leave (which after all is about rejecting something) but Voteleavetakecontrol (a much stronger piece of messaging).  How many of us, given the chance to take control rather than be told what to do, would turn that down?

Vote Leave’s website, like Stronger In, doesn’t feel like an active campaigning website yet either.  Both however are e mailing supporters and asking for activity on social media.

I’ll be looking at the communications by both sides over the next few weeks.  I’m interested in how the tone and content changes.  And I’ll be using Benoit’s Functional Theory of Political Communication to do some analysis.

June 23rd will be a key date for our country.  I hope the communications will help us all become engaged in the decision and cast our vote in an informed and committed way.

 

This post was originally published on the CIPR’s Influence website.