JOHANNESBURG, September 5 – Prominent UK-based PR firm, Bell Pottinger, was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for work it did for Oakbay and the controversial Gupta family.
“Bell Pottinger’s membership has been terminated with immediate effect. Bell Pottinger will not be eligible to reapply for corporate membership of the PRCA for a minimum period of five years,” PRCA said in a statement embargoed for Tuesday morning.
The United Kingdom (UK) and Middle East and North Africa region-based (MENA-based) public relations and communications membership body said it imposed its “most serious sanctions” on Bell Pottinger, “following the industry regulator’s investigation into Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay Capital in South Africa”.
The investigation followed a complaint from the Democratic Alliance (DA) in July.
“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,” PRCA director general Francis Ingham said.
“This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communications.”
PRCA said that Bell Pottinger has been found to have breached the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct, in respect to the PRCA Professional Charter clause 1.1 and clause 4; and the PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 12 and clause 13.
PRCA launched its investigation on July 5, following a complaint from the DA. The DA and Bell Pottinger were able to present written and oral evidence at a hearing of the PRCA Professional Practices Committee on August 18, PRCA said.
“The Professional Practices Committee was unanimous in its view that the Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct had been breached, and recommended to the PRCA Board of Management that Bell Pottinger’s membership be terminated. The Board approved that recommendation unanimously,” PRCA said.
PRCA said that Bell Pottinger was given five days to appeal the Board’s decision, and to submit an appeal to the PRCA. The PRCA Board of Management met again on Monday, to make a final ruling.
During the hearings, Bell Pottinger acknowledged to the Committee that work undertaken fell short of the company’s own standards and the Committee found that it failed to maintain and protect its own reputation and that of the profession as a whole.
“Certain aspects of the manner in which the Bell Pottinger campaign was conducted on behalf of Oakbay Capital fell so far short of expected standards that an apology was issued by James Henderson, CEO, in which he described the social media campaign highlighting economic emancipation to be ‘inappropriate and offensive’: ‘these activities should never have been undertaken’. The partner in charge of the campaign was dismissed and two employees were suspended,” PRCA said.
“The Committee formed the unanimous view that the manner in which the Oakbay Capital programme was conceived and delivered indicated a failure on the part of Bell Pottinger’s senior management to oversee and control a campaign which, in the Committee’s view, required the highest level of scrutiny and supervision, given the sensitive political and social environment in which it was activated.”
The Committee was not convinced with Bell Pottinger’s explanations during the hearing which was not in accordance with implementing “opinion-forming programmes in sensitive or volatile climates”, it said.
Bell Pottinger was accused by the DA of fomenting racial division in South Africa by spreading false claims against white captains of industry and former finance minister Pravin Gordhan to divert attention from mounting allegations of state capture by the Gupta family.
In July, the company fired partner Victoria Geoghegan, who lead the Gupta account, and three other employees and apologised for having run an “inappropriate” media campaign on behalf of Oakbay. It had terminated its contract with the Guptas in April.
Bell Pottinger has lost several big South African clients, among them Richemont. The luxury goods company is headed by Johann Rupert, who was allegedly among those targeted to draw attention away from the Guptas.