PRCA terminates Bell Pottinger's membership

The Public Relations and Communications Association has terminated the membership of Bell Pottinger with immediate effect after the trade body found that the agency’s work in South Africa had ‘brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute’.

The PRCA launched an investigation into Bell Pottinger in July after South Africa’s Democratic Alliance complained that its work for Oakbay Capital, the investment arm of the controversial Gupta family, exploited racial divisions within the country.

Bell Pottinger resigned the £100,000 per month client in April. Three months later, the agency fired managing director Victoria Geoghegan and suspended three others, and hired law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate the allegations, while offering ‘an unequivocal and absolute’ apology for an ‘inappropriate and offensive’ social media campaign.

Despite a last minute appeal by Bell Pottinger, led by former chief executive James Henderson, the PRCA’s Professional Services Committee was unanimous in its view that the four key elements of the body’s Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct had been breached. ‘The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour,’ said director general Francis Ingham.

Bell Pottinger claimed during the hearing that the work undertaken on behalf of Oakbay Capital was largely ‘corporate and financial’ and that the offending element was just one component of a single workstream in a large and complex programme. But the Committee found it hard to reconcile this version with the reaction to the campaign and the level of criticism it provoked.

It also found that the nature of the work, depicted in documents submitted to Oakbay Capital by Bell Pottinger, was ‘by any reasonable judgment likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa’. The rejected Bell Pottinger’s assertion that the theme and ‘consequences’ were unintentional.

At the hearing, Henderson conceded that the work undertaken by the account team ‘fell short of Bell Pottinger’s own standards’.  The Committee also found that the agency’s senior management had failed to ‘oversee and control a campaign’ that required the ‘highest level of scrutiny and supervision’.

Bell Pottinger joined the PRCA in 2010. It is only the second time that the trade body has kicked out a member. The agency has the right to apply to rejoin in five years but it may not be automatically granted.