Bell Pottinger’s expulsion from the UK’s public relations body has been welcomed by South Africa’s industry and opposition parties, but the controversial public relations firm remains unapologetic, and says it is “disputing the basis on which the ruling was made”.
HuffPost SA is reporting that Bell Pottinger “acknowledges the ruling, accepts that there are lessons to be learnt but disputes the basis on which the ruling was made”.
In the statement sent to the publication, Bell Pottinger did not elaborate on what it disputed but said it would now follow the industry’s ethical code voluntarily.
The Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa believed that the expulsion should be an eye-opener for public relations firms and their clients to establish relationships based on ethical conduct and professional standards.
The institute welcomed the Public Relations and Communications Association’s decision to expel Bell Pottinger for breaching the professional charter, and public affairs and lobbying code of conduct through the work the company did in South Africa.
This followed a complaint by the Democratic Alliance that Bell Pottinger exploited racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of the Gupta family, and Duduzane Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s son.
“Ours is not the business of deception or alternative facts, but the business of accurate information, positive perceptions, mutually beneficial relationships, professional standards and ethical conduct,” said the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa’s Malesela Maubane.
“Public relations and communication management professionals have the power and opportunity to influence behaviour – positively or negatively, and it is our responsibility to ensure that power is used in the right way.”
He added that the “paid Twitter” or “war room” debacle, which gained momentum in the run-up to the country’s 2016 local government elections was also an illustration of irresponsible use of communication channels, unethical conduct and unprofessional standards in public relations and communication management.
Maubane reiterated the institute’s call for the regulation of the industry, and pointed out that the body was only able to sanction public relations and communication management professionals who are its members.
Dikgetsi said the party would “continue to spare no effort in our struggle to fight against state capture”.
The DA’s communications spokesperson, Phumzile van Damme, commended the association “for the transparent and professional manner in which they pursued this matter”.
This sanction is the most serious penalty a firm can face and is of significant reputational damage for the embattled spin doctors. The UK body found that not only did Bell Pottinger fail “to maintain and protect its own reputation” but also “the standing of the profession as a whole”.
“It will take our country years to rebuild our severely fragile race relations, which Bell Pottinger, the Guptas and the Zumas sought to exploit for their own financial gains,” said Van Damme.
“This ruling is by no means an indication that Bell Pottinger is off the hook just yet. Bell Pottinger must take responsibility for their actions and disclose all information regarding their Oakbay Capital account and reinvest all money from their Oakbay account back into South Africa.”
The DA is exploring the steps that can be taken to force the full disclosure.