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The reputation management agency Bell Pottinger issues an apology that isn’t a real apology. And I hate every word of it.

by Jerry Silfwer // Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
Spin Doctor & Copywriter // Spin Factory

Here’s the backstory:

Oakbay Capital in South Africa hires a reputation management agency, Bell Pottinger. According to Bell Pottinger’s Wikipedia-entry, the agency seems to have had some problems with managing their reputation themselves. 

Less than a year later, both Oakbay Capital and Bell Pottinger are being accused of purposely stirring up racial divisions.

Following a perfect storm of criticism in social media, Bell Pottinger decided to issue a public apology.

Here’s Bell Pottinger’s letter:

Bell Pottinger’s Apology

The Bell Pottinger excuse letter

A masterclass in how to not make a public excuse.

And here’s why I don’t like it:

“Three months ago, Bell Pottinger announced that it had decided to cease work for Oakbay Capital. We had worked for them for a year, following a competitive bid process.”

The emphasis on “three months” is, of course, an attempt at pushing this as old news. But if they had enough information to end the partnership three months ago, why did it take them three months to explain why?

Then:

“When we terminated our work with Oakbay, we said we were doing so because of increasingly strong social media attacks on our staff and our business from South Africa, and that we regarded the criticisms of what our team had done as unfair.”

In this passage, Bell Pottinger is saying that they still don’t hold Oakbay Capital responsible for anything at all. And they’re not putting any blame on themselves. 

Instead, they’re essentially blaming the angry social media mob, accusing them of unfairly attacking their employees. And it’s got to be social media’s fault, right? 

Then:

“These attacks on, and criticisms of, our staff continued and were clearly the result of strong and sincere anger. Most seriously, it was said that we had supported or aided campaigns to stir up racial division in South Africa. Therefore, we called in the leading independent international law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, to review the account and the work done on it. That investigation is still continuing and will be completed in the next few weeks. We intend to publish the findings of that report and take appropriate action.”

Apparently, Bell Pottinger is lawyering up.

They do acknowledge people’s anger, though, but they do so with a condescending, “at least they seem to believe what they’re saying.”

Then:

“However, we have already been shown interim evidence which has dismayed us. Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep concern.”

Has Bell Pottinger done anything wrong or haven’t they?

This is, of course, deliberately vague and unclear. Why not describe what exactly they’re deeply concerned about?

Then:

“There has been a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive. At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done. For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger.”

What’s worse? That everyone at Bell Pottinger didn’t even see anything of their campaign until now, or that “senior management has been misled” without explaining, then, who misled them. 

And to move from there to appointing themselves and their values as victims… well, that’s offensive. And I don’t even live in South Africa.

Then:

“Though the inquiry is ongoing, we have dismissed the lead partner involved and suspended another partner and two employees so that we can determine their precise role in what took place. As soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately.”

If Bell Pottinger were misled, which is a recurring theme of this letter, then why are they firing and suspending senior staff? It makes no sense given the direction of this letter.

Then:

“At Bell Pottinger – a proudly diverse and international team – we have good, decent people who will be as angered by what has been discovered as we are.”

Having a diverse and international team is in no way making it impossible for a company to act inappropriately.

And once again — they’re pushing themselves as victims of not knowing what’s going on at their agency. From a strategic standpoint, I fail to see how that’s any better.

Then:

“We wish to issue a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened.”

But why apologize, then?

If Bell Pottinger hasn’t done anything wrong, and are victims of this situation — why are they apologizing? It is, after all, “a full, unequivocal and absolute apology.” 

They don’t regret, for instance, causing people harm; they regret that this “happened.”

Then:

“James Henderson Chief Executive”

No contact information. Meaning: “Please don’t bother us with this anymore, you evil social media mob.”

Corporate Non-Apologies are Bad PR

Bell Pottinger’s excuse letter is, of course, about to become a modern classic of a “non-apology.” A we’re sorry that you’re sorry.

And, apart from being disrespectful, it’s a known fact in the public relations industry that non-apologies only makes people angrier. We should advise against these types of corporate statements.

The basics here are simple:

Either you acknowledge your guilt and apologize. Or, if you’ve been wrongfully accused — you stand your ground and you fight with evidence-based arguments.

Issuing non-apologies are just bad PR.

Bell Pottinger.

Blowing smoke.

Am I being too hard on Bell Pottinger? Let me know what you think.

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Author:

Jerry Silfwer is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.


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