JOHANNESBURG — UK public relations firm Bell Pottinger was yesterday handed down the most serious reprimand yet for the controversial and racially divisive work it carried out for the Guptas’ Oakbay Capital. A decision by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) to expel Bell Pottinger from its members has sent shockwaves through the UK’s public relations industry. The PRCA was damning in its assessment of Bell Pottinger – a company that is now facing possible total collapse. It will now take a miracle for Bell Potts to come back. In this interview, Francis Ingham – who is the Director General of the PRCA – unpacks the industry body’s decision. He also tells us that Bell Pottinger’s Gupta work was among the most unethical that he’s seen in his career. – Gareth van Zyl
With me from London is Francis Ingham who is the director-general of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in the UK. Francis, thanks for chatting to me. Now, your organisation says that Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute hence your harshest possible sanction of the company. Can you unpack the PRCA’s decision to boot Bell Pottinger from your association?
Yes, of course so, the PRCA today expelled Bell Pottinger and, as you say, it’s the harshest sanction we had available to us and it’s the harshest one we’ve ever imposed on a member. We did so because we found that the Bell Pottinger had broken our professional charter and our public affairs and lobbying code of conduct, even though they work for Oakbay Capital quite straightforwardly. Our charter says that members have to have the highest standards. Bell Pottinger didn’t. It says that members have to have the regard for the public interest, and Bell Pottinger clearly, he didn’t and it says that members can’t go around inciting racial hatred, which in our view, Bell Pottinger clearly did. So, we’ve expelled them and we’ve said that they’re not eligible to reapply for membership for at least 5 years and at that point to be considered eligible to return to the PRCA, they would have to prove that they had changed fundamentally and we will be taking that process very strenuously indeed.
Now, this is the second company to have been sanctioned by the PRCA. For listeners out there, who may not know, which company was the first and what were they sanctioned for?
The first one was a small, boutique PR agency, called Fuel PR. They were sanctioned for misrepresenting one of their staff as being a member of the public and of selling in stories on the back of that, to publications here, in the UK. In honesty, we’re not really comparing like with like, Fuel PR employed 12 people, just in the UK. Bell Pottinger is 270 people in the UK and an international footprint and, quite frankly, probably the most famous name in the PR industry and that’s why we’re taking this very seriously indeed and why it’s quite a big moment for us, actually.
Is that company that you’ve mentioned that was previously sanctioned, are they still in business today, are they still operational?
I think they are but they’re tiny and they have not prospered on the back of being expelled.
What kind of possible impact could now come out of this for Bell Pottinger? Just how serious is the PRCA taken in the UK? The PRCA has about 20,000 members so, you’re quite a large organisation.
Yes so, we’re the largest PR association, not just in the UK but in Europe. We’re taken very seriously indeed. If you are an ethical PR practitioner and an ethical agency then you are a member of the PRCA. The fact that Bell Pottinger is now outside of the PRCA that it isn’t regulated by our disciplinary process is very significant indeed for them. I know that they’ve already lost a great number of clients. I imagine they’re losing even more clients as we speak and I would question whether Bell Pottinger will be in existence at the end of its 5 year expulsion from the PRCA.
Now obviously, Bell Pottinger has had a history of taking on clients that perhaps other PR firms would never even touch so, there’s been a bit of a history. Was Bell Pottinger flagged up previously with the PRCA at all?
There was a case with Bell Pottinger some years ago, when they were cleared by out PRCA. In fact, the chairman of the PRCA that cleared them some years ago was also the chairman of the PRCA that found them guilty a couple of weeks ago. So, this is a different kind of case because the first time around we found them innocent. The second time around we found them guilty. They’ve always been clear about who they were before and in this business, clients pick and choose if they want to be associated with particular PR companies on the basis of other clients. They’ve always been clear about that but this work for Oakbay Capital was the worst piece of unethical PR work I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been running the PRCA and that’s why we expelled them today. It was just beyond the pale.
Now, I think about 1 or 2 weeks ago there was also a board member with the PRCA, who was basically part of Bell Pottinger who stepped down from the PRCA. What’s the backstory behind that?
Actually, Kevin Read, who was a partner at Bell Pottinger though he was, as it happens was not working at Bell Pottinger, who’s on gardening leave, writing a book. Kevin Reed made the decision for himself that he ought to stand down from the PRCA board. It was a decision which I welcomed and, as far as I’m aware, Kevin had had nothing to do with the Oakbay account. I think we do need to draw a distinction between the people who worked on the account and arguably, were in charge of its failings, and the great majority staff of Bell Pottinger who probably had nothing whatsoever to do with it and who feel that their careers and their reputations have been injured by the actions of other people.
Obviously, you guys sat through these hearings with Bell Pottinger and the SA political party, the DA (Democratic Alliance).
Now, that hearing was held in private. Can you please tell us why it was held in private and whether the results or basically, the documentation and the discussions of that hearing, will ever be made public?
Sure, well it was held in private according to our rules. Our rules state that unless all parties concerned agree that it should be held in public then it’s held in private. That’s so that people feel confident they can share confidential information and they can speak in an honest manner in front of our PRCA. We went to both parties and asked if they were happy for it to be in public. The DA, as you might expect, said yes and Bell Pottinger said no so, according to our rules, it was held in private. Now, at the time people said that was somehow going to distort the outcome. I hope that those people will reassess that view now that we’ve made our judgement and in expelling Bell Pottinger. The documents that were provided by those parties it’s not our place to release them because we don’t own them. If the DA wants to publish their papers that’s up to them. If Bell Pottinger wants to publish their papers that’s up to them as well.
Okay and if Bell Pottinger has a new spin-off and they basically, some of the directors split and they create a new company, will the PRCA then still give that new company membership, even though it will still consist possibly of some of the employees who were involved with some of the work on Oakbay?
The simple answer is, “No.” Bell Pottinger can change its name, change its ownership, it can do whatever it wishes but it isn’t eligible to even be considered for PRCA membership, for at least 5 years, it’s that simple.
How would you go about determining that because obviously, if somebody had to start a new company and they maybe bring in some new people? They could say well, we’re trying to start afresh?
We are going to be really rigorous in scrutinising any applications for membership, from anybody who’s worked at Bell Pottinger. We don’t want to unfairly treat people who had nothing to do with the unfair account but as a corporate entity, it isn’t returning under any circumstances. The individuals who worked at Bell Pottinger, we will be interrogating their work before we would consider them for individual membership. I would say this to your listeners, take our word. We’ve been rigorous, and transparent, and robust all this way through and then come back and have a look a few months down the line and see if we’ve stuck to our word because I promise you, we will have done.
So, Francis, is then a closed case regarding Bell Pottinger? Can they maybe appeal this decision still?
There is no further appeal. Bell Pottinger is no longer a member of the PRCA and won’t be for at least 5 years, in the future.
As a last question, do you think that Bell Pottinger can survive this?
I think it’s highly doubtful that Bell Pottinger can survive. The reputational hit they’ve taken is so significant. The number of clients they’ve lost is so significant, that I think it’s very hard to see how they survive.
Francis Ingham, thanks so much for chatting to me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you very much indeed.