Bell Pottinger’s Gaffe, UK PR Association’s Stand & Learning for Nigeria PR Industry
Frontline Public Relations practitioners in Nigeria have barred their mind on the inherent learning for the industry and PR practice as the UK’s Public Relations’ industry body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) this week like a wounded lion did roar and bit one of its own and respected global PR firm, Bell Pottinger for a grave professional infraction and gaffe the agency committed in far away South Africa.
Nigeria’s leading lights in the profession including Yomi Badejo-Okusanya, fnipr, President of the African Public Relations Association, (APRA) / CEO, CMC Connect Burson Marstellar; Chido Nwakanma, Nigerian Chapter President, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)/ CEO, Blue Flower; Ayeni Adekunle, Founder/Group CEO, BHM Nigeria and Tokunbo Modupe, CEO, TPT International among others are buoyed by PRCA’s regulation and its handling of the issue, hoping the regulators in Nigeria such as NIPR, PRCAN will grow to stand their grounds on ethical issues.
According to them Nigeria PR industry and practitioners should take the learning to improve the industry and practice while ensuring that the client should not be all-in-all but his briefs should be subjected to ethical standards and global best practices.
“I can say that race insensitivity is anathema and a no go area. If any individual or company would fall foul of such an issue it certainly should not be a PR organization whose operatives are supposed to be steeped in the ethics and morals of communication at a very high level”, says Akin Adeoya, CEO, MarketingMix. Adeoya, Nigeria’s foremost marketing writer adds “If they (Bell Pottinger) dropped the ball and are punished severely for doing so, I can only applaud the regulator”.
Meanwhile, while we come back to the import and learning the Bell Pottinger case offers the Nigerian PR industry and practice, we serve you a bit of the background to the gaffe of the decade!
The Meteoric Rise
The British PR firm, Bell Pottinger which at a time was retained as PR adviser to the Goodluck Jonathan 2015 re-election bid, was founded in 1987 by a PR advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The agency has kept soaring in the profession serving local and international clients including governments.
The agency that prides itself as a leading integrated, international reputation management agency with wholly owned offices in South Africa, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Yangon, has become a shadow of itself losing tones of business within a few days of the mishap. The spate of its descent could only be rivalled by its meteoric rise to fame.
Knack for Risks & Lucre
According to a BBC report, Bell Pottinger and its founder, Lord Bell, have a reputation in the PR industry for taking risks. A few of these are as follow – The firm represented the South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorious after he was charged with murder; Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has used the firm’s services as well as Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad.
In the late 1990s the PR firm worked on a campaign to release the former Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, who had been arrested in London on a warrant from Spain requesting his extradition on murder charges. Willingness to represent controversial individuals and unpopular issues is synonymous with the agency provided the pay is good said a source.
The Gupta’s Stench
The firm was removed as member of the PRCA after it was accused of exploiting racial divisions in South Africa on behalf of the Gupta family to the detriment of the common good and the generality of society.
A statement by PRCA on Tuesday, said the role played by the PR firm in the construction of the Gupta family’s propaganda empire‚ consisted of multi-national fake news scheme to hide the family’s growing enrichment at the expense of South African citizens and taxpayers.
Hence, the Association announced that it has imposed its most serious sanctions on Bell Pottinger‚ following the industry regulator’s investigation into Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay Capital owned by the Gupta family, South Africa. On the account of his unfriendly disposition to the Gupta business, Bell Pottinger’s founder, Lord Tim Bell in an interview, said he resigned from the firm 18 months ago, leaving the stage for a new management led by his son, Piers as Chairman (Asia). Sadly, it runs in the blood!
The PRCA Verdict
Mr. Francis Ingham‚ Director General of PRCA‚ said: “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions‚ and it has received the harshest possible sanctions”. Sources close to the issue, observed that the PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour. “This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communications.”
In concrete terms, Bell Pottinger was found to have breached the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct. In the light of this, Bell Pottinger will not be eligible to reapply for corporate membership of the PRCA for a minimum period of five years.
Big Businesses Walk Away!
Pained but in a dispassionate tone, Lord Bell hinted that the “PR firm is unlikely to survive” this self inflicted disaster. As a result of the scandal and subsequent expulsion for the professional body, prime clients including luxury goods group, Richemont and the South African bank Investec have walked away from the global PR company. Also, a major investor was said to have walked away from the firm and scrapped a plan to sell its 27% stake.
Similarly, HSBC which has consistently hired Bell Pottinger on ad-hoc basis has pronounced that it would no longer deal with the agency. Other companies that have deserted include Clydesdale Bank, Carillion, and TalkTalk are among a string of big names reportedly to have cut ties with the PR firm.
Learning for Nigeria PR Industry
The delisting of Bell Pottinger by the Public Relations and Communication Association in Britain for its conduct in South Africa underlines a few important issues professionals should always bear in mind, says Chido Nwakanma, former President, Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria/CEO Blue Flower Nigeria.
According to Nwakanma, Ethics matter, and should be integral to our conduct as professionals while Public opinion also counts for something, particularly for firms working at the cutting edge of the interface between organisations and their publics such is done in public relations.
While noting that going out on a limb for a client in pursuit of lucre could lead to loss of limbs, he records that “Bell Pottinger had a history of taking on controversial accounts and pushing the envelope negatively”.
He points out that the “famous British agency” is now “a case study in the limits to which Agencies are allowed to listen and to do the bidding of clients. Not every client instruction is just. Acting professionally sometimes means gently but firmly saying ‘No’ to client requests and drawing the line on codes of conduct and ethics”.
Sounding a panacea to such ugly development, Nwakanma who is also the President, Nigerian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) advises “Better corporate governance may be with the presence of an ombudsman, would have made a difference. Professional service firms should subject themselves to critical reviews once in a while to look at governance and professional issues rather than the current focus on finance and the bottom line only”.
For the APRA President, the issue at hand confirms there is need for a well articulated and circulated code of practice for public relations in Nigeria this is because “Public Relations has become an all comers affair here”.
According to Badejo-Okusanya, there are two broad forms of regulation: self and government. If one fails the other should kick in.
“Decree 16 of 1990 which set up the NIPR now considered an act of the National Assembly, on the face of it, does not contain sufficient details for effective regulation. But thankfully, the decree empowers the NIPR to do that which unfortunately so far, has not been done. No one has ever been sanctioned here to the best of my knowledge, be they corporate or individual”.
Raising posers, the CMC Connect Burson Marstellar’s CEO queries, “Who do we report practice infringements to? And even when you do, what happens? Do we even have an updated and publicised list of those licensed to practice PR in one form or the other?” Giving voice to the age-old structural deficit of the Institute, he reasons the “NIPR has to make up its mind if it’s a regulatory body or a trade association – therein lies the conflict”, add that part of the much needed advocacy for PR is effective regulation which leads to possible sanctioning and in turn improves the quality of practice.
“The Bell Pottinger case is a wake-up call for all practitioners that there is an ethical way to do our business and we must abide by it or get flushed out”, The APRA President reminded PR practitioners and Nigerians in particular.
If a practitioner fails to keep his house in order, the flushing could either be done by the government or as in the present case, “by our contemporaries”. Just as Akin observed above, “If they (Bell Pottinger) dropped the ball and are punished severely for doing so, I can only applaud the regulator”, the APRA President considers PRCA’s action, “a very bold move that will have global ripple effects on public relations” with Nigeria learning a great deal from the decision.