‘Overnight we found the company was gone’: How Bell Pottinger Asia recovered from the London scandal

The collapse of Bell Pottinger not only took the PR world by surprise, but was a shock the management of the Asian operations, said Mark Worthington, managing director of the rebranded Klareco Communications.

“Overnight we found the company had gone,” Worthington told the Mumbrella Commscon conference, revealing the Singapore office only found out about the UK operation’s collapse from a staff member seconded to the London HQ.

Kloreco’s Ang (centre) and Worthington (right) with Mumbrella’s Abigail Dawson

Worthington, along with CEO Ang Shih-Huei, described how the agency scrambled to save its client base in the wake of the collapse of the high-profile communication agency’s London office.

Bell Pottinger folded spectacularly in 2017 after the South African Mail and the Guardian revealed the agency had engaged in a dirty tricks campaign to support the politically connected Gupta family’s business interests in the country.

As the size of the scandal became apparent, British clients fled the business, forcing it into liquidation in September 2017.

Worthington was scathing about the London office’s performance as the crisis developed: “I don’t want to speak ill of people who have now found themselves in quite difficult situations but, I mean, had they done anything, it would have been probably better than what what they actually did.

What would it look like to us or to many people in the industry was paralysis. They were not communicating internally or externally, they didn’t seem to have a plan, any action was slow and ultimately when they did come out with some words, because they had no action, they were treated as empty.”

Looking to save the Asian operation from London’s fate, Worthington and Ang looked to buy Bell Pottinger’s 90% stake in the Singapore-based business.

“Part of the negotiations with the administrators were ‘do you actually have time to negotiate a deal with attractive buyers when what you had was a matter of days?'” said Ang.

“If we did not have evidence of a deal we might have been returning to Asia with no clients. We had concerned clients who were already outlining plans of departure, plans of action that needed to be taken to their boards or management where they would step away like clients in London did.

“We persuaded the administrators this was a reality they were facing. They might not have a deal at all if they waited days.”

However with Ang being a director of the UK business and holding the balance of Bell Pottinger Asia shareholdings, Worthington had to lead the negotiations for the management buy-out.

“We decided that I would be the voice of hardball. And it needed us to sit there and say if we don’t get a deal within this time frame, we’ll be back on a plane, we won’t be at the office on Monday, the place will collapse, you’ll have fifty staff to look after and that will be your problem.

“We didn’t mean that, and we didn’t want that. We were doing that for our staff, but we had to take a position, and that ultimately helped to work this through.”

After the successful buy-out and renaming of the business to Klareco – Esperanto for clarity – the two hit another staffing problem.

“One of the things that we have not fully appreciated actually because while all this was unfolding on the other side of the world and the Bell Pottinger name was mud. We were probably focused on the issue of ‘do we have a business at the end of this?’ What we didn’t realise at that time was maybe how much our staff were struggling and falling out of love with working for Bell Pottinger.

So this was doubly complicated when we came out with Klareco everyone was elated, but there were a number of people whose hearts had left the building. So it wasn’t just about getting them to buy into the new brand, we had to win them back.

If we were doing it again I’d want to put a bit more emphasis on that, because it was something that we really learned about later on.

Despite Worthington’s criticisms of Bell Pottinger’s former UK executives, he said the company would work with them if called on to help with crisis management: “If they ever want to employ us in the future to come back and advise companies in the UK about this, we’re very happy.”


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