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The power of reputation: How can you avoid a Bell Pottinger?

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it” Benjamin Franklin

  • Bell Pottinger has gone into administration after a racist campaign in South Africa
  • Clients deserted the group, not wanting to be associated with the scandal
  • It shows how quickly a brand can be undone

The demise of Bell Pottinger is a salutary reminder of the speed with which a company can be undone by poor practice. Company reputations are quickly destroyed, as Bell Pottinger should have known. What lessons can be learnt from the scandal?

  • Years of history matter little. Bell Pottinger may have thought that their client relationships would be strong enough to withstand one rogue act. They weren’t.
  • Companies get found out. This is a connected age. Word spreads quickly and many of Bell Pottinger’s clients didn’t wait to give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • No-one wants to be associated with a tainted brand. Brand reputations are viral and clients know that their reputation can be infected by association.
  • Not all business is good business – Bell Pottinger got a chunky retainer from Oakbay Investments, but this was business it might have been wiser to turn down.
  • Consult the team – wider consultation might have made it clear that advising Oakbay was a poor choice.
  • Emerging markets are different – blending local and international knowledge is helpful to pick up local nuances and idiosyncrasies.
  • Take responsibility – the management team at Bell Pottinger implied that they weren’t informed about the activities of the team in South Africa. That’s not a great excuse.

Perhaps the biggest lesson should be to act well at all times: social media is a powerful weapon and no business can stay under the radar. It is tempting think that governance considerations are just for the green lobby, but the Bell Pottinger case shows that it is something everyone needs to consider.


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