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For whom the bell tolls

An upcoming discussion between two senior public relations practitioners spotlights the issue of ethics in public relations.

Lord Chadlington will interview his fellow peer Lord Bell on 7 November in London. The event is being hosted by the PR Company.

Lord Bell worked for Margaret Thatcher during the 80s and 90s before founding the eponymous public relations agency Bell Pottinger which he ran for 30 years.

His political career took in three successful election campaigns, including advising the National Coal Board during the Miners’ strike.

Lord Chadlington founded Shandwick and Huntsworth.

Bell Pottinger was placed into administration in September by BDO after it suffered client losses following a ruling by the PRCA Professional Practices Committee that found it guilty of unethical practice.

The case centres on a £300,000 contract for Oakbay Capital owned by the Gupta family that sought to stir racial tension in South Africa. The goal of the campaign was to deflect attention from the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma.

Lord Bell wasn’t responsible for delivering the work that resulted in the PRCA expulsion, but he set up the original contract, and was responsible for a corporate culture in which this type of work was acceptable.

The PRCA called out the lack of oversight that a major account of this size should have attracted.

Last month The Financial Times suggested that the seeds of the disaster were sown in the relationship breakdown between Lord Bell and CEO James Henderson. Lord Bell left the agency in August 2016.

This wasn’t the first time that Bell Pottinger found itself in hot water in recent years.

In 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism covertly recorded some of the firm’s executives boasting of its UK government connections to journalists posing as agents for the government of Uzbekistan.

It was also criticised at the same time for anonymously editing Wikipedia pages on behalf of clients. Editing Wikipedia is forbidden by the community in any instance where there is a conflict of interest.

The PR Company event is billed as a discussion of the public relations industry of today, what it might hold for the future and the importance of risk management in public relations.

I’m hoping that Lord Chadlington will hold his fellow peer to account, and that this will be an opportunity for reflection and learning, but I’m not sure what Lord Bell can tell us about the future of public relations practice. He is sceptical about social media.

Lord Bell is recovering from a stroke. His resilience is the stuff of legend but he was clearly uncomfortable during the recent Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark.

It’s impossible to say whether his judgement has been impacted but the opportunity to tell his side of the story at the PR Company event is clearly compelling.

The PR Company discussion between Lord Chadlington and Lord Bell will take place on 7 November from 6pm to 8pm at ICAEW, Chartered Accountants’ Hall, Moorgate Place, London EC2R 6EA.

You can find further details and booking information on the PR Company website.

I’m a member of both the PR Company and its Court however this blog is written in personal capacity.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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