The fallout from the Bell Pottinger scandal has sent shockwaves through the City.
As clients continue to flee the embattled firm, and questions over its very survival swirl among the world of corporate and financial PR, the affair has focused attention on the darker side of an industry which constitutes a vital component of London’s professional services sector.
If money is the City’s fuel, PR and communications is the engine oil. Richard Branson said the head of PR is often the most important person in the company, and a good chairman will have them by their side. It’s not just a question of managing corporate reputations, important though that is in an age when an off-colour tweet can trigger a comms crisis.
The sector also guides companies through the regulated and sensitive territory of deals, IPOs, restructuring and corporate governance, as well as broader communication strategies. Of course, alongside this lucrative work a handful of firms are also happy to engage in “special projects” for clients with tarnished or dubious reputations. And that’s putting it mildly.
Bell Pottinger was an enthusiastic proponent of this model (having worked for the dictator of Belarus, the wife of Syria’s President Assad and the government of Bahrain) but they are by no means alone in eyeing up the fees on offer from unsavoury clients.
It’s possible that Bell Pottinger’s public shaming will make firms think twice before pitching for certain kinds of work, and if nothing else it will serve as a lesson on internal governance – since the bulk of the company’s defence rests on the claim that nobody knew what was going on.
Though there is a rush to hoover up Bell Pottinger’s clients, PR bosses in the City have been shaken by the week’s events. Nobody’s laughing too loudly. Huge effort has been put into improving the reputation of the sector in recent years, and its honest practitioners hate to see it damaged by scandal. Indeed, the reason why Bell Pottinger was chucked out of the trade body, the PRCA, was for “bringing the industry into disrepute”.
The PRCA’s head, Francis Ingham, said it would be “very welcome” if the case increased the level of scrutiny on the industry. He will almost certainly get his wish.