As a young man cutting my teeth in journalism during the Thatcher years, I was in awe of the people behind the company, Bell Pottinger, that helped ensure her electoral victories. I remember they were touted as one of the first public relations firms to use behavioral psychology to good effect.
Now, after being in Public Relations for about 18 years and seeing the Bell Pottinger name reappear into prominence,and with it the man who founded the firm, I must say that it is a letdown. The man at the helm of that once powerful public relations firm turns out to be a doddering shadow of his former image in the interview below:
He was combative and defensive, he was in denial and he could not even switch off his mobile for an interview- twice.
What lessons can we PR people learn from this?
I think that the first is that the is a business in which charlatans can fool many of the people much of the time. You have to ask the question, after looking at this interview, who in their right mind would hire such a person, and consequently, his firm? Yet many f the high and mighty have opened their wallets to this man.
Why? I suspect because he could charm if he wanted to. And all that was needed was charm, never mind the soundness of the strategy or whether they were able to execute. His stroke of luck with Margaret Thatcher no doubt contributed to a certain mystique around him.
The second lesson to be drawn from this incident is that many people in PR can preach about crisis management, but when they themselves are in the middle of one they panic and make the same type of mistakes as their clients would.
The panic we have seen is a move by Bell Pottinger Asia to distance themselves and to rebrand as Klareco. In a letter to clients Bell Pottinger CEO And Shih Huei was at pains to say that the Asia folks are actually different from the disgrace in the UK:
“This underlines what we have been reiterating over recent days—that our team in Asia, is and always has been, a separate legal entity from Bell Pottinger in the UK,” the memo read. “While the UK business is expected to go into administration as early as next week, the Asia business is entirely ringfenced and solvent. Our teams are intact, we continue to serve our clients and it is entirely business as usual.”
Separate legal entity yes, but a company is an imagined entity, made real by its culture, values and mindset. How are the Asia guys different from the folks at HQ? Who would be convinced that under a new name, the firm would be free from the kind of culture that triggered the collapse of the firm in the first place?
Plus why rebrand and not get out and form a new company instead? This happens all the time in the PR industry and clients usually follow the people. If they are good there is never a worry whether the business will follow.
So will the bell toll for Klareco as well?