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I have a confession to make. For many years I have done business with an international financial organisation that has been involved in money laundering. This same shameless company has been investigated for illegally manipulating the markets to maximise its profits, for enabling some pretty dodgy individuals to evade taxes and profit from drug-trafficking, and which has also been fined hundreds of millions of pounds for mis-selling its products.
What an unsavoury outfit. And yet I still choose to bank with HSBC because, for the most part, it’s always been pretty good to me. Efficient, responsive and generous, its members of staff have fostered within me a loyalty so that when those appalling stories have emerged I’ve not instantly abandoned them in a moralistic huff.
So it’s hugely ironic that HSBC – a bank that has been consumed by allegations of illegality for at least a decade – has pulled the plug on its relationship with the tainted PR outfit Bell Pottinger. In fact, so outraged was it by that firm’s disgraceful antics in South Africa with the Gupta family, that it was the first one out to exit the Holborn head office, nobly announcing this week: ‘We have used Bell Pottinger for specific products in the past but will not be doing so in the future.’
Like toppling dominoes, HSBC was followed by Singapore investment company Temasek, luxury goods maker Richemont and Investec, the South African investment bank. No doubt there will be many more that decide that the indelibly tarnished Bell Pottinger is simply not a good fit for their brand.
This is the same Temasek that, owned by the shadowy Singapore Ministry of Finances, exacerbated Thailand’s political crisis when it bought a company owned by the disgraced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
This is the same Richemont that, while selling clean-living luxury goods and boasting of its sustainability credentials, prefers not to talk about its massive investment in tobacco.
This is the same Investec whose name cropped up hundreds of times in the so-called Panama Papers after controversial law firm Mossack Fonseca was hacked.
My point is, there are very few high-performing companies on the planet that have not had the occasional black mark against their name. It’s why they hire successful reputation-enhancing companies like Bell Pottinger. And look at how they run when the shoe is on the other foot…
There will be hundreds of wonderfully talented (and some not so) members of staff at Bell Pottinger who must now be fearing for their jobs, planning their escape routes and imploring everyone they know in the public relations industry to meet them ‘for a quick coffee’.
However, I wonder if the best move is simply to sit tight. The company is already on its way to stemming the crisis that has engulfed in. Top people have been sacked, senior executives are being reshuffled, there’s new leadership, dead wood is being cut adrift, renewed vigour and attention is being lavished on current clients, a name change (essential) is being mooted and cannot happen fast enough and fees are no doubt being lowered to attract new customers.
On top of which, when the heat of this scandal has abated as it surely will, their more enlightened clients will recall the great service they’ve received and the loyalties that they’ve built over many years of successful reputation enhancement. I’ve never worked with Bell Pottinger (although there was one aborted attempt many years ago) but feel sure that very few of the staff have been engaged in nefarious practices. Or at least any more nefarious than those of their rivals. It’s why, until a few days ago, they were part of one of the most successful and profitable PR agencies in Britain.
Some of their clients, like my HSBC, might have behaved unethically. Some of their bosses’ decisions, like those at HSBC, were unforgiveable. Some of their behaviour, like HSBC’s, was obscenely arrogant. Yet, like HSBC, they also provide a largely brilliant service to customers who, like me, value loyalty and know that the best companies learn from their inevitable mistakes.
Personally, I think those who are currently abandoning Bell Pottinger are showing not a moralistic courage but a panicked cowardice. After all, in an unsavoury game of reputations, they’re hardly equipped to take the high hand.
In fact, when it comes to reputations, the remaining brands in Bell Pottinger’s stable might want to recall the bitter wisdom of one of the most conniving baddies – and effective influencers - in all of literature.
Reputation, according to Shakespeare’s Iago, ‘is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving’. Those idiotic staff members who screwed up deserve to be banished but do the rest of them?
So it turns out that travel really does broaden the mind. I’ve just returned from a business trip to South East Asia and a chance encounter in a hotel bar with a young teacher who unwittingly gave me a lesson in how to be a better consultant.
I have no qualms about being a paid-up member of the Awkward Squad. Easy options, familiar choices, the path of least resistance – part of my progression from journalist to media consultant has seen me abandon the well-trodden for the road less travelled. It’s forced me to learn fast, use my failures intelligently instead of wallowing in them and brought back some much-needed creative spontaneity to the way I work. Awkward but rewarding for both me and, hopefully, the client.
But, like everyone, I still want to choose the easy way if I can get away with it. It’s human instinct to conserve energy – physical, mental and emotional – instead of deliberately putting ourselves into tricky situations that compel us to try harder.
Most of the CEOs and executives I work with constantly stress the need to be daring and push themselves further, yet very often they still opt for the conservative option. It’s easier that way. The truly enlightened and daring are a joy to work with because, though you know instinctively that success is highly likely, you’re never quite sure how you’re going to get there.
Anyway, Hannah and I were staying in the same Singapore hotel where she was holding creative writing workshops. In real life, the softly-spoken English teacher works not in relative luxury but in an inner-city school, battling the weariness of teenagers as they encounter literature that they can’t fathom or which they’re convinced has - and will have - no meaning or use in their lives. Sort of like some of the executives I work with, who can’t see how content can make them and their brands more successful. And no doubt just as temperamental.
Part of the reason for Hannah’s trip is to give her time to think in readiness for the new school year when she starts at a different secondary. She’s left behind her improving state school in North London and is about to start at an even tougher proposition down the road, one which Ofsted has labelled as underperforming.
Truly out of the frying pan…
‘I can’t wait, it’s so exciting’ she smiled. ‘It’ll be a challenge and it won’t be easy but teaching isn’t meant to be easy. There will be kids at this school whose lives I will hopefully be able to change, in some small way. And my teaching life will change too. I’m sure for the better. I hope I’ll be a better teacher. Not taking the easy option seems the right thing to do.’
And yet too many of us convince ourselves that the right thing is, in fact, the easy option. Not speaking up about flawed corporate policies, repeating the actions of last year because things are just tickety-boo right now, delaying decisions for fear of the consequences, eschewing new opportunities because of the imponderables, taking the money and running.
Just at a time when I was calcifying because of longed-for career certainty, my life was turned upside down by a sudden and brutal redundancy. Five years on, I can honestly recall the moment that the easy option landed on my lap – a highly-paid job back in the fold, doing the same thing but with a different boss.
Instead, I tried to cultivate a different path. More treacherous but, thankfully, more fulfilling. And, crucially, one that I have and continue to learn from. The key, I now realise, is to keep making sure that I don’t get too comfortable and continue to look for that less-safe path when the occasion demands.
The sort of path that truly inspiring CEOs take. And, thankfully, our children’s most inspiring teachers.
There is a fascinating similarity between Theresa May’s lackluster election campaign and the fall-out from the British Airways ‘glitch’ that grounded almost
its entire fleet over the Bank Holiday weekend. In this era of instantaneous disruption, the more that leaders and their public relations gurus become
obsessed by control, the less likely they will be able to lead when chaos, mess and uncertainty strike. Read more...
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Much of our content was dull and unreadable until Grant got stuck into it. Now we have much-needed clarity and purpose. He’s been a joy to work with.
Grant provided us with an extremely robust and creative thought leadership strategy, as well as collaborating effectively with our other communications partners. A proper consultant.