We risk learning the wrong lessons from Bell Pottinger’s demise

All that remains of Bell Pottinger is a burnt-out shell. Scraps will be salvaged and the less toxic parts could, with careful handling, be rebranded into something vaguely respectable. But the company as we know it has been read its last rights. Few will mourn. Stirring up racial tension in a country where sensitivities are deep and fresh is only few moral decibels shy of Goebbels communications.

Reading the PRCA verdict that effectively banished Bell Pottinger from the industry it is striking how clear-cut their take is on the company’s activities in South Africa. As they ought to be. The issue risked spreading beyond the contentious dealings of Bell Pottinger and bringing the whole industry into disrepute. A hard line had necessary symbolic power.

Industry stalwarts will say lessons must be learned. My concern is that it is impossible to learn lessons from half-truths and incomplete facts. The fate of Bell Pottinger has been hastily signed and sealed without determining the hows, whys and wherefores of what went wrong. Or to use a different metaphor, we have all dashed to the moral high-ground of condemnation -for reasons as strategic as they are ethical- when perhaps we should have spent a bit longer wading through the muck of detail and ambiguity. Lord Bell was crucified on Newsnight earlier this week for his perceived part in the Gupta deal -the family backing the hate-filled campaign. Yet his protests that he had nothing to do with the work itself -he resigned from the company over a year ago- fell on deaf ears. The venerable PR man had walked into the oldest media trap of a kangaroo court interview.

We desperately need to know how this happened to Bell Pottinger. What we do know is that a South African office was behind a racial campaign. Things get murky when we delve into online activity -the campaign was largely social, using the hashtag #whitemonopolycapital- as this lacks the direct accountability of traditional PR. Murkier still is how much of this below-radar activity Bell Pottinger central were aware of. As the saying goes, when the money flows the questions stop. This is a phenomenon many multinationals suffer from. That it happened to an organisation as savvy as Bell Pottinger should be a major wake up call.

Blind eyes were turned and culpability spread. Yet the supply and calculated restriction of knowledge in large organisations is still not properly understood. The undoing of Bell Pottinger could be a fertile case study. And who better to tell it than its now former CEO James Henderson. Tainted he may be but the reformed sinner is a powerful brand. He is best placed to document the organisation’s failings- which have the potential to read as a compelling work of intrigue and deception. Before long he’ll be able to sell the rights for a gripping series that exposes the dark underbelly of lobbying and spin.

If things might not be as bad for the Bell Pottinger protagonists as currently seems, the future may not be quite as rosy for the world of PR oversight. As stringent as the PRCA ruling was, it is unclear that the industry is in a better place to police itself. Bell Pottinger received the body’s toughest sanction, yet many big PR agencies aren’t members to begin with. PR services are international and there is not a requirement that they be affiliated with a UK trade association. We may like to think that the UK PR industry is getting its house in order but in reality there is very little that can be done to keep tabs on globally dispersed players.

Bell Pottinger will vanish – but its business will continue to be done by others. And I suspect its failings will too.