Cape Town - Embattled British public relations firm Bell Pottinger has had its membership of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) terminated.
In a press statement embargoed for 01:00 on Tuesday, September 5, the UK-based PRCA announced that Bell Pottinger would not be eligible to reapply for corporate membership of the PRCA for a minimum period of five years.
“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions," PRCA director general Francis Ingham said in the statement.
Ingham said the PRCA had never before passed 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 communication,” he said.
The termination was effective from 01:00 on Tuesday.
Fin24 breaks embargo
Fin24 decided to break the embargo after it came to light that the PRCA's statement was widely circulated under local media and interest groups.
"This is an immense public interest victory for South Africa," said News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson.
"The PRCA's decision to expel Bell Pottinger is the strongest action yet against corporate enablers of state capture. It is our duty to communicate this swiftly and widely to our readership."
Most serious sanction PRCA can impose
Termination of membership is the most serious sanction that the PRCA, an industry body which represents and regulates over 20 000 PR and communications practitioners in the UK, can impose.
The news comes after the PRCA launched an investigation on July 5 into Bell Pottinger’s contentious campaign to represent Oakbay Investments and the Gupta family. This followed a complaint from the Democratic Alliance.
On August 18, Bell Pottinger and the DA presented written and oral evidence at a hearing of the PRCA Professional Practices Committee.
In the embargoed statement, the PRCA said its Professional Practices Committee was unanimous in the view that Bell Pottinger’s Oakbay campaign breached four separate clauses in the industry body’s codes of conduct and professional charter.
The committee recommended to the PRCA’s board that Bell Pottinger’s membership be terminated immediately.
“The board approved that recommendation unanimously,” read the statement.
Among the clauses that the PRCA found Bell Pottinger to have breached, was one that forbid public relations companies from causing offence “on the grounds of gender, race, religion, disability or any other form of discrimination”.
What clauses Bell Pottinger breached
The committee found that Bell Pottinger’s South African campaign 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 also found that Bell Pottinger breached a clause stating that companies must observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations and communications, and another that stipulated that companies must take care to uphold the standing of the profession as a whole.
The PRCA also found that the South African campaign did not have enough oversight by senior Bell Pottinger staff, despite its controversial subject matter.
“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,” stated the media release.
The ruling comes after a report by international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills was published regarding Bell Pottinger’s work for the Guptas.
The law firm on Monday found that Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay was “potentially racially divisive” and breached ethical principles.
Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson also officially announced his resignation on Monday.
Henderson said he felt “deeply let down” by colleagues who misled him about the content of the Oakbay account, but added that as the head of the group he ultimately had to accept responsibility.
SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.