A complaint was bought against Bell Pottinger by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party. The first step was to assess the complaint, confirm that the disciplinary process was appropriate rather than arbitration, and identify the precise clauses from the PRCA Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct. The second step was written observations from both sides. The third step was the PRCA Professional Practices Committee deciding that this merited a hearing and should be taken forward. The fourth step was written evidence from both sides. The fifth step was oral evidence at the hearing. The sixth step was the decision from that hearing being approved by the PRCA Board of Management. The seventh step was the appeals period and consideration of Bell Pottinger’s appeal. The eight step was the final decision (in this case, termination of their membership, the most serious sanction available) and that decision being made public.
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.”
Click here to watch Francis Ingham speaking about the expulsion of Bell Pottinger.
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.
• 3rd July, 2017: Complaint lodged by Democratic Alliance.
• 5th July, 2017: PRCA confirmed that the complaint would be investigated by the Professional Practices Committee.
• 13th July, 2017: Deadline for written evidence from both parties.
• 18th August, 2017: The Professional Practices Committee hearing.
• 23rd August, 2017: Board of Management meets to consider PPC report.
• 24th August, 2017: Board of Management judgement issued to Bell Pottinger.
• 1st September, 2017: Deadline for Bell Pottinger appeal. Bell Pottinger appeal referred to PRCA Board of Management.
• 4th September, 2017: Board of Management meets to consider Bell Pottinger appeal.
• 5th September, 2017: PRCA announces outcome of complaint.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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. 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 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.
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. Bell Pottinger failed to maintain and protect its reputation and the standing of the profession as a whole.
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.
Bell Pottinger’s membership was terminated after the full process. They were deemed to have breached all four parts of the Charter and Code raised by the Democratic Alliance.