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EDINBURGH — The Bell Pottinger ‘white monopoly capital’ scandal has blown up in the UK, underscoring the perils of a public relations firm allowing itself to become the story. Bell Pottinger has been in the news before – but survived exposure for its role in, among other things, manipulating Google search results to “drown” out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour. But the public relations (PR) company’s role in drumming up anti-white sentiment in order to help their paymasters, the Gupta and Zuma families, may have been a step too far for the British PR industry. A leading UK PR commentator has warned that the Bell Pottinger deeds in South Africa are very bad news for Britain’s public relations sector, which has its tentacles in global communications consultancy work. Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief of PR Week, has urged the PR industry body investigating whether Bell Pottinger has contravened codes of conduct to take a tough stand – in order to reinforce the message that the Bell Pottinger way of doing things should be the exception rather than the rule for UK public relations practitioners. – Jackie Cameron
By Thulasizwe Sithole
On Friday, a British PR scandal reaches a pivotal moment, writes Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief of PR Week.
“The leading trade body, the Public Relations and Communications Association, will decide whether to kick out Bell Pottinger, one the country’s biggest consultancies, for breaching its code of conduct,” says Rogers on iNews.co.uk.
On Friday the PRCA will hold a private hearing with a representative from the consultancy and from the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition political party.
The DA complained to the PRCA that Bell Pottinger’s London staff had violated clause IV of its code, which states that members are required to take “reasonable care that professional duties are conducted without causing offence on the grounds of gender, race, religion”.
Rogers outlines how Bell Pottinger, the UK’s 13th largest PR agency, has been stirring racial tension in post-apartheid South Africa through its work for the controversial Gupta family.
South African journalists with amaBhungane have excavated the details of Bell Pottinger’s dirty work, with the BBC and other UK media outlets recently picking up the story.
“With Bell Pottinger now a political football in South Africa’s febrile atmosphere, it comes down to the UK PR industry to make a big call,” says Rogers.
The PR Week boss notes that the Bell Pottinger image is threatening the reputation of UK PR companies on the global stage.
“Quite aside from the impact of the campaign on South African society, the scandal could tarnish a big tranche of corporate-political advisers back home. British PR consultancies have climbed up the value chain in global corporations, but some organisations will look askance on the whole sector if they believe other consultancies employ the sort of methods that Bell Pottinger is accused of using.”
The influential PR industry columnist outlines allegations that Bell Pottinger used “fake social media accounts to attack ‘white monopoly capital’ in South Africa; incendiary language that deflected criticism from the Guptas.”
Rogers says “this is the sort of technique used back in 1960s America, immortalised in the satirical book Toxic Sludge is Good for You. In more contemporary terms there are echoes of the “fake news” campaigning successfully employed by the Trump election machine.
“The overwhelming majority of PR consultancies today are highly professional businesses, promoting ethical and open communications from their clients. The PRCA is under pressure to make a major statement to a domestic audience too,” adds Rogers in his iNews column.
Meanwhile, the Guardian website quotes Rogers saying it “was shocking that Bell Pottinger had once again allowed itself to become the story following a 2011 investigation by the Independent into the firm’s alleged ‘dark arts’ used to improve companies’ reputations. Those revelations also led to a PRCA hearing, which did not censure Bell Pottinger.
“The word in the PR industry is that clients are very uneasy and more are considering leaving,” Rogers told the Guardian.
“Clients do not want to be represented by PR firms that become the story or are associated with scandal. And this has been a huge scandal that has damaged the reputation of political consultancies.”
Rogers said it was rare for a PR firm as big as Bell Pottinger to be hauled before the PRCA and said he could not recall any big companies ever being disbarred from the association. “It would be quite a big deal if they got thrown out.”
However, he said the industry “needs to take a stand” and “show that these practices are not endemic and that the PR industry as a whole believes in open, transparent and ethical communications”.
For the full details of the role of Bell Pottinger in corruption, race-baiting and fake news, read:
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