Bell Pottinger expelled from UK’s PR industry body

Agency accused of inflaming racial tensions in S Africa and ‘setting country back by 10 years’

South African president Jacob Zuma. Photograph: Getty Images

South African president Jacob Zuma. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Bell Pottinger, the London public relations firm boasting a string of powerful international clients, has been expelled from its industry body for at least five years after being accused of inflaming racial tensions in South Africa.

Handing out its toughest possible punishment, the Public Relations and Communications Association found Bell Pottinger guilty of four breaches of its code of conduct and concluded that the company’s work on behalf of South Africa’s powerful Gupta family was likely to stoke “racial discord” in the country.

“This is the most blatant instance of unethical PR practice I’ve ever seen,” Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, told the Financial Times. “Bell Pottinger’s work has set back South Africa by possibly 10 years.”

It is only the second time in the past decade that an agency has been expelled from the UK’s largest PR trade body, which represents 400 businesses and 20,000 individuals.

Lost clients

Bell Pottinger has already lost big-name clients like luxury goods group Richemont and the South African bank Investec after facing claims that it whipped up racial tensions in its messaging for Oakbay, a company controlled by the Guptas. The family has been accused of “capturing” the government of President Jacob Zuma.

South African media and civil society groups have said that the company presented opponents of the Guptas and Mr Zuma as “white monopoly capital”, including engineering fake social-media profiles amplifying attacks.

A separate independent review ordered by Bell Pottinger and carried out by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills on Monday found that the company’s campaign work for the Guptas was “potentially racially divisive” and “in breach of relevant ethical principles”.

The publication of the review, which considered 45,000 documents and involved a “significant” number of interviews, came a day after the resignation of Bell Pottinger’s chief executive James Henderson.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)