When PR agencies go rogue

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

The unfolding details of the #GuptaLeaks emails have been fascinating reading, despite whether they prove to be true or, as those implicated state, “fake news”. For those of us in the PR and communications industry, the most fascinating of all must surely be the integral role that the now-infamous UK agency, Bell Pottinger, has allegedly played.

I wrote about it in a recent column but, as more allegations and titillating details have emerged, I have found myself riveted to the story, and more needs to be said concerning what this means about us and our industry.

At first look, the unravelling allegations seem right out of a Jason Bourne movie, or perhaps a radically updated James Bond one. All the requisite details are there — from outrageous amounts of money being lugged around, literally, if reports are to be believed, in unmarked bags; to plotting and scheming that spans continents and reaches right into the highest levels of government. Central to all of this seems to be the role that our ‘favourite villainous’ spin-doctors, Bell Pottinger, have played.

I’ve often told people that what we do is not rocket science. When people are having a panic attack about the size of a logo or a media invite going out a day late, it’s not the end of the world; no one’s life is at stake. That what we, as PR people do, is not so earth-shatteringly important as to lose a night’s (ok, or too many nights’) sleep over.

And, to be fair, what Bell Pottinger have been accused of doing is not a million miles away from that which has been common place for years. Some of the most well-known, -experienced and -admired people in the industry have cut their teeth in the political sphere — think Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s political spin-doctor for his years in power. The role that PR plays within the political landscape — building relationships with and securing support from influential groups; informing public opinion; building up a person or organisations’ reputation — is not new.

But this is PR in a different league.

Apparently, a group of wealthy, connected and powerful businessmen have, literally, attempted to take over a democratically elected government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

So, where does the work that “legitimate” lobbying (or, on a much-smaller and more-insignificant scale, the corporate or consumer PR work we do for brands) cross the line to become that which we find so horrifying with all that appears to be the case with Bell Pottinger and the #GuptaLeaks saga? There’s a very fine line between the two and, in this case, several red flags which should make us alarmed, very alarmed.

The first is that private wealth, coming from a very small group of people, funded the PR company that in turn used its expertise to influence government and legislation. This is a fundamental spit in the face of democracy — it means that, if you’re wealthy enough, you’re able to overcome the rules and leverage the power of a democratically elected government in your own favour. It means that, if you’re not wealthy beyond belief (which is pretty much everyone else), you’re powerless to change this. It overrides the very founding belief of democracy, which is that no person is more important or has more rights than the next.

The second red flag is that of how the PR agency rolled out its campaign. According to various news reports, it engaged in a number of dubious tactics, including fake “influencers” and Twitter trolls which spread its dodgy messaging and which were unleashed in full force against any detractors. Hand in hand with this was the besmirching of innocent people’s names and reputations [latest: BREAKING: Protesters target our Peter Bruce after anti-Gupta articles on TimesLive — ed-at-large] when they “got in the way” and the creation of messaging that was not only aimed at excusing its client’s behaviour but at hiding and obscuring the truth.

This is not about press releases pushing the benefits of some product or other. This is about the development of stories and narratives that went further to sow political and racial divisions in an already divided and politically sensitive country.

I wonder what it must be like to have been part of the Bell Pottinger team who worked on this account, if all the allegations prove to be true. I’ve always found it difficult, if not impossible, to work on ‘PRing’ an account that I found morally dubious.

So what do you think the agency team members thought or felt when they were working on this account? Did they honestly think they were doing some kind of valuable or good work? Did they think that we fools at the bottom of the darkest African continent knew or deserved no better? Or did they just take the big fat pay cheque and walk away, not caring what havoc they’ve caused at the other end of the world?

The reality is that this PR, lobbying, spin doctoring, whatever we may call it, has been bent and twisted to benefit a very few, those who already inhabit a league of wealth and power that’s incomprehensible to most South Africans. This is not a game that is being played with no consequences. Real people and real lives have been impacted, and the politics of a nation that we used to believe was protected by a mythical rainbow has been permanently besmirched.

Imagine being the spin doctors who are proud to have that on their résumé?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.