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Bell Pottinger scandal may have strengthened British PR Industry

Today (11 September) could mark the final chapter in the tragic saga of Bell Pottinger.

Last week, chairman Mark Smith told staff that accountants BDO had been appointed to restructure or sell the business and that Bell Pottinger could be in administration by today.

Rarely does the PR industry make the FT’s front-page splash, or lead the Today Programme’s news agenda, as it did last week. And how unfortunate that this sector of the British economy - which employs 83,000 people and generates several billion pounds in revenues - only makes the business news when there’s a scandal of this nature.

Many times last week I was interviewed on TV, radio or in the national press with the relentless question: does this sorry tale tarnish the whole British PR industry?


 

My answer would be a consistent "no", despite the negativity that mainstream journalists like to express towards PR. And now I would even argue that the events of the past few months have strengthened the industry’s ethical code.

PRWeek's annual league tables show there are well over 150 PR agencies turning over more than £1m per annum in UK-based income. Almost without exception, this income is derived from sensible and transparent advice to blue-chip businesses looking to grow sales in highly scrutinised markets. There is also a multitude of corporate campaigns that try to improve ethical decision-making within respectable enterprises.

Hardly any PR consultants in the UK would have thought of working with the Gupta family in South Africa or considered setting up fake social media accounts. Indeed, once the full allegations of Bell Pottinger’s campaign came to light, many in the industry were quick to condemn this sort of work and prove their operating cultures to be different.

Moreover the PRCA, the biggest trade association, took the strongest stance in censuring Bell Pottinger, expelling the agency for at least five years.

So perhaps we should see this as an example of strong self-regulation; possibly in contrast to the collective behaviour of British newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal.

Few in PR have sprung to the defence of Bell Pottinger. And any firm considering consultancy of a controversial nature would surely now look at that firm's rapid demise - from a company that has been valued from £20m to £40m, to the brink of administration - and take the correct ethical decision.