The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) announced that it has 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.
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.
Francis Ingham MPRCA, Director General, PRCA, said: “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.”
Bell Pottinger has been found to have breached the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct, in the following respects:
- PRCA Professional Charter clause 1.1;
- PRCA Professional Charter clause 4;
- PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 12;
- PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 13.
The PRCA launched its investigation on 5th July, following a complaint from the Democratic Alliance. Bell Pottinger and Democratic Alliance were able to present written and oral evidence at a hearing of the PRCA Professional Practices Committee on 18th August.
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.
Bell Pottinger was given five days in which to appeal the Board’s decision, and submitted an appeal to the PRCA. The PRCA Board of Management met again on Monday, 4th September to make its final ruling.
PRCA Professional Charter clause 1.1:
Have a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of Public Relations and Communications. Furthermore a member has the responsibility at all times to deal fairly and honestly with fellow members and professionals, the Public Relations and Communications profession, other professions, suppliers, intermediaries, the media of communication, colleagues, and above all else the public.
- The Democratic Alliance alleged during the hearing that Bell Pottinger had ‘exploited racial divisions on behalf of the Gupta family’.
- The Committee understood the burden of Bell Pottinger’s response to be that the offending element was just one component of a single workstream in a large and complex programme. Further, that the programme was essentially corporate and financial by nature. The Committee tried unsuccessfully to reconcile these assertions with what actually happened in terms of the reaction to the campaign and the level of criticism which it provoked.
- The Committee acknowledged Bell Pottinger’s eventual response to the problems but felt that a programme designed and managed in accordance with the highest standards of practice in PR and communications could not, and should not, have caused such problems in the first place.
- The Committee, therefore, found that Bell Pottinger had breached PRCA Professional Charter clause 1.1.
PRCA Professional Charter clause 4
A member is required to take all reasonable care that professional duties are conducted without causing offence on the grounds of gender, race, religion, disability or any other form of discrimination or unacceptable reference.
- The Committee found that the nature of the programme depicted in the documents submitted to Oakbay Capital by Bell Pottinger, and as conducted by Bell Pottinger on Oakbay Capital’s behalf, was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that. The Committee did not find the suggestion that this theme of the campaign and its consequences were unintentional to be plausible. The targeting of white corporate South Africa is a material consideration here.
- The Committee, therefore, found that Bell Pottinger had breached PRCA Professional Charter clause 4.
PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 12
PRCA members conducting Public Affairs and Lobbying services must be at all times aware of the importance of their observance of the principles and duties set out in this Code for the protection and maintenance of their own reputation, the good name and success of their organisation, and the standing 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.
- Asked by the Committee if Bell Pottinger acknowledged that work undertaken by the account team fell short of Bell Pottinger’s own standards, Henderson answered in the affirmative. Henderson agreed that the PRCA’s standards, as set out in the PRCA Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct, could not be described as lower than those of Bell Pottinger itself. Bell Pottinger failed to maintain and protect its own reputation and the standing of the profession as a whole.
- The Committee, therefore, found that Bell Pottinger had breached PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 12.
PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 13
A member shall not act or engage in any practice or conduct in any manner detrimental to the reputation of the Association or the profession of Public Affairs and Lobbying in general.
- 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.
- In probing this question the Committee was not satisfied that Bell Pottinger’s explanations were fully convincing. This was not in accordance with its members’ own experience as senior managers of large consultancies implementing opinion-forming programmes in sensitive or volatile climates.
- One outcome was a large volume of highly-critical media coverage of Bell Pottinger’s work on behalf of Oakbay Capital, both in South Africa and internationally, which – in the Committee’s view – has caused damage to the reputations of both Bell Pottinger and the profession of public affairs and lobbying.
- The Committee, therefore, found that Bell Pottinger had breached PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct clause 13.
About the PRCA
Founded in 1969, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) is a UK and MENA-based PR and communications membership body, operating in 55 countries around the world. We represent in excess of 20,000 people across the whole range of the PR and communications industry. The PRCA promotes all aspects of public relations and communications work, helping teams and individuals maximise the value they deliver to clients and organisations.
The Association exists to raise standards in PR and communications, providing members with industry data, facilitating the sharing of communications best practice and creating networking opportunities.
All PRCA members are bound by a professional charter and codes of conduct, and benefit from exceptional training. The Association also works for the greater benefit of the industry, sharing best practice and lobbying on the industry’s behalf e.g. fighting the NLA’s digital licence.
It’s great to see the PRCA taking a strong stance and questioning both the ethics and general behaviour of Bell Pottinger. I think there were many people who wondered if this might be swept under the carpet so it’s great to see the PRCA showing their teeth. It can only be good to see the governing bodies of the industry taking action in this way. Especially pleasing wa the specific mention of ethics as a big contributing factor, and a sign that marketing and PR agencies can no longer just do what they want without consequences, though historically to be fair, very few have.