MONDAY 4 SEP 2017 6:51 PM


The outcome of an investigation into claims that Bell Pottinger deliberately perpetuated racial tensions through its public relations campaign work in South Africa has seen its membership of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) be terminated with immediate effect. The global public relations firm, which was found to be in breach of the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct, is ineligible to reapply for PRCA corporate membership for at least five years.

A complaint lodged about Bell Pottinger’s work for investment holding company Oakbay Capital, by the South African opposition party Democratic Alliance, led to its investigation by the PRCA. Owned by the influential Gupta family, Oakbay is known for its close links to incumbent South African president Jacob Zuma and his son Duduzane Zuma, who is an Oakbay employee. It was found that Bell Pottinger’s PR campaign for the Oakbay Capital account relied on highlighting issues of economic land division among the country’s grassroots population, styled as ‘white monopoly capital.’

The campaign, critics say, was a tactic to stir up unrest and therefore deflect attention from allegations of widespread corruption in Zuma’s government.

The nature of Bell Pottinger’s actions has shone a light on the issue of ethics in the public relations industry, which works hard to remain free of contentious issues. As the leading trade body for the public relations profession, a key function of the PRCA is holding its associated members to account for any actions which undermine the hard work done by the vast majority of PR practitioners around the world. Yet, so severe does the misdemeanor need to be that expulsion of a PR firm from the PRCA’s membership has occurred only once before.

Francis Ingham MPRCA, director general at the PRCA, says, “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions.”

“The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour. This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communications,” explains Ingham.

In a campaign described by independent law firm Herbert Smith Freehills as a ‘…potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive [and] created in breach of relevant ethical principles,’ Bell Pottinger is accused of, among other things, creating fake Twitter accounts to target wealthy white businessmen, ultimately blaming the community for generating a ‘white monopoly capital’ on South African land. However, Herbert Smith Freehills also found that Bell Pottinger did not create the term ‘white monopoly capital’ despite the term being appropriated by Zuma in a bid to reach grassroots activists.

The PRCA’s disciplinary action also follows the resignation of Bell Pottinger’s chief executive officer, James Henderson, over the weekend. There is speculation that Henderson’s departure may have a been a last-ditch attempt to salvage the reputation of Bell Pottinger, which had at that point not heard the outcome of its appeal process. However, there was also criticism of Henderson’s alleged naivety surrounding his employee’s actions, not least by his former ally, and founder and former CEO of Bell Pottinger, Lord Tim Bell.

Speaking to the BBC this morning, Lord Tim Bell says, “The resignation doesn’t solve anything, it simply adds to the confusion. He owns a large percentage of the company, he’s no longer the chief executive – that’s a particular job. But it doesn’t resolve anything, it doesn’t solve, it doesn't make anything go away, and it leaves a smell in the air.

I think it's virtually impossible to detoxify the brand as long as James is a large shareholder and the other major shareholders have to look to their own relationship with him. I think it’s difficult to see how its future looks in any way positive.

I think it's possible for the company to survive. I think it’s unlikely, but it's possible.”

In a statement made on Bell Pottinger’s website on 6 July, Henderson claims ignorance on activity surrounding the Oakbay account and claims to have been ‘misled’: “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,” reads the statement. "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. 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.”

The issue of economic emancipation is a volatile issue in a country still reeling from the impact of the 1948 – 1994 apartheid regime. There is no doubt that the impact of the investigation and subsequent expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the PRCA is a huge blow against the firm’s already contentious reputation, with reports of clients rapidly cancelling dealings with the firm.

Yet, if one positive is to emerge from the fiasco, perhaps the public relations community can take heart that the body responsible for ensuring ethical practice, the PRCA, remains diligent and poised to act against unscrupulous misdemeanours. Any work which undermines the generally diverse and inclusive nature of the global PR industry has no place in its future.