Bell Pottinger’s Dreadful Non-Apology

Why I hate every word of Bell Pottinger's non-apology.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

PR agency Bell Pottinger issued an apo­logy — and it’s horrible.

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 has had prob­lems man­aging its repu­ta­tion. Less than a year later, both Oakbay Capital and Bell Pottinger are accused of pur­posely stir­ring up racial divisions.

Following a per­fect storm of social media cri­ti­cism, Bell Pottinger issued a pub­lic apology.

Bell Pottinger’s Statement

I’ll run through Bell Pottinger’s let­ter of apo­logy, para­graph by paragraph:

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.”

Of course, emphas­ising “three months” is 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?


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 says they still don’t hold Oakbay Capital respons­ible for any­thing. And they’re not put­ting any blame on them­selves. Instead, they’re blam­ing the angry social media mob, accus­ing them of unfairly attack­ing their employees.


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.”

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


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?


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


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, why are they fir­ing and sus­pend­ing seni­or staff? It makes no sense, giv­en the dir­ec­tion of this letter.


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 up. And, 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.


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 apo­lo­gise, then? If Bell Pottinger hasn’t done any­thing wrong and is the vic­tim of this situ­ation— why are they apo­lo­gising? It is, after all, “a full, unequi­voc­al and abso­lute apo­logy.” They won’t regret caus­ing people harm; they regret that this “happened.”


James Henderson Chief Executive”

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

No Bell Pottinger, It’s Not Good Enough

Bell Pottinger’s excuse let­ter deserves to become a mod­ern clas­sic of a “non-apo­logy.” A yucky 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 make people angri­er. We should advise against these types of cor­por­ate statements. 

Either you acknow­ledge your guilt and apo­lo­gise. Or, if you’ve been wrong­fully accused — you stand your ground and fight. Issuing non-apo­lo­gies like these is just bad pub­lic rela­tions.

Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

Thanks for read­ing. Please con­sider shar­ing my pub­lic rela­tions blog with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. If you have ques­tions (or want to retain my PR ser­vices), please con­tact me at jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Bonus Resource: The Public Apology

The Public Apology

A pub­lic apo­logy is, by nature, an ambigu­ous state­ment; it ranges from sub­missive remorse to a che­va­lier­’s trope of humbly express­ing that the out­come was all that one could muster — des­pite best efforts.

And the news media can­’t get enough of these dra­mat­ic statements.

The audi­ence won’t con­sider any­one’s pub­lic apo­logy until they under­stand why someone did what they did — and how they feel about doing it. This ambi­gu­ity is why it’s nev­er enough to say, “I apologise.”

Public apo­lo­gies func­tion as ritu­al­ist­ic pub­lic pun­ish­ment and humi­li­ation, rather than for­give­ness, to enforce eth­ic­al stand­ards for pub­lic speech.”
Source: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 1Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118

If we unpack the pub­lic apo­logy as a concept, we can dis­cern three cent­ral parts:

  • the apo­logy (“I apologise”),
  • the expres­sion of regret (“I’m sorry”) and
  • the explan­a­tion (“this is why”).

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a uni­ver­sal pub­lic apo­logy, only dif­fer­ent types of apologies:

  • non-apo­lo­gies,
  • deflect­ive apologies,
  • patho­lo­gic­al apologies,
  • mor­al apologies,
  • defeat­ist apologies,
  • char­ac­ter apologies,
  • cir­cum­stan­tial apologies,
  • sto­ic apo­lo­gies, and
  • trans­ac­tion­al apologies.

From a pub­lic rela­tions per­spect­ive, pub­lic apo­lo­gies are chal­len­ging. They must be craf­ted care­fully to have the inten­ded effect.

Learn more: When a Public Apology is Warranted — and When It’s Not

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1 Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has


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