Double Standards, Betrayal And Why Bell Pottinger Deserves To Survive

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?

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