🔒 We won’t see a repeat of Bell Pottinger – PRCA’s Francis Ingham

JOHANNESBURG — It was just over a year ago, on 5 September 2017, that I interviewed Francis Ingham, the Director General of the PRCA. At that time, the PRCA had made the extraordinary decision to expel Bell Pottinger from the organisation amid the dodgy work it did for the Guptas. What followed thereafter was the complete collapse of Bell Pottinger, which lost clients at a blistering pace and which ultimately was put into administration. In many ways, the fall of Bell Pottinger was a bellwether for things to come as the Guptas’ empire would come to crumble in SA while Jacob Zuma would ultimately be forced to resign as President. Now we have a Commission of Inquiry into State Capture – unthinkable just a year ago. It was therefore interesting to catch up again with Ingham on how the PRCA’s decision impacted the UK PR industry and the backstory to personal threats that he received during what was a dramatic time. Take a listen. – Gareth van Zyl

It’s a pleasure to welcome the PRCA Director General, Francis Ingham, on the line from London. Francis it was just over a year ago that you became a well-known name in SA as your organisation took a decision to expel Bell Pottinger. Well, today Bell Pottinger doesn’t exist anymore, so how has the PR industry in the UK changed a year later and has it moved on from that?

So, as you say, it’s a year since the PRCA expelled Bell Pottinger and I think what people were surprised by was the speed with which the company fell apart. What’s changed a year on? Well, the industry has embraced an ethical practice more than ever before. It’s realised that there are certain types of clients who simply aren’t acceptable in the modern world, and that ethics are at the forefront of what it does. I know that our action in the UK prompted other associations around the world to review how they handle complaints against their members. We agreed to universal principles that ought to guide all PR practitioners, called the Helsinki Declaration and is signed up to by hundreds of PR agencies around the world so, I think we made significant progress.

You were quoted in PRWeek as saying that one of the things that you felt a bit bad about regarding that decision was that a lot of people at Bell Pottinger lost their jobs. It does seem as though quite a few of them were also snapped up during the year by other rival firms. But do we know about what’s happened to the rest of the staff from Bell Pottinger?

Sure, I wouldn’t comment on individual people but I would say this that most people are now back in work in the PR industry, and it was also the case that very few people in Bell Pottinger ever worked on the Oakbay account, and I’m not aware of anybody who was in any way closely associated with Oakbay being in the industry any longer.

Another interesting snippet from that story was that you said that you were harassed by some thugs during that whole saga and drama last year. Can you tell us more about that? Do you know who they were, perhaps?

Sure, there were people who came around to my house in London twice in the middle of the night. From their accents they were South African people who were very clear that they weren’t happy with our handling of the case. There was a white van that turned up with a couple of South African guys in it at my children’s home in the countryside. And there were regular emails and, in particular, social media low-level threats. The social media stuff tended to be from Twitter handles where you can’t identify the person, and they would frequently shut down afterwards and they were just pretty horrible videos and pictures of ways people had been, let’s be honest about it, tortured and in some cases tortured to death in SA. With the invitation of, ‘How did I fancy that happening to me?’ That happened over 3-4 months.

How did you feel about that that must have been horrific?

I would certainly say that some of the images haven’t gone away [in my mind] and they were quite shocking in their intensity and simply, horrible in nature. You survive, don’t you? And the only ones that really got to me were the ones that asked me to think how I would like that to happen to my children, which it seemed, even at the time, way too far. But you get through it, don’t you?

A London taxi passes the offices which house the headquarters of Bell Pottinger LLP in London on September 5, 2017. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

You made the decision as well, the PRCA decision, to expel Bell Pottinger. What happened after that? Were you still intimidated for some time after that or did it come to a complete stop after a while?

Sure, well the people who were doing the intimidation, until we expelled Bell Pottinger, were people who thought that we were going to find them innocent and who thought it was going to be a coverup. Then all of those people went away as soon as we expelled Bell Pottinger, and a different group of people took their place, just briefly, but their level of threats seemed less intense than the first group of guys.

Obviously, this whole Gupta-Oakbay issue still hasn’t quite completely disappeared for what used to be Bell Pottinger. Just recently the Insolvency Service in the UK said that they would be investigating potential breaches of duties and other misconduct referred to by the Oakbay account. That could really, open up a whole other can of worms, couldn’t it?

Yes, and that is ongoing. I am quite honestly astonished that a year on we are still talking about this. But I see that as a good thing because we’ve always said, as an industry, that your reputation is your most valuable asset. And we saw what happened to Bell Pottinger when its reputation was destroyed. The company was destroyed. I think it’s right that people are held to account for their actions and it’s right that as a body, we took the action we did and we took it publicly. And we continue to say to anyone in our industry that the overwhelming majority of people in our industry are ethical and professional. But if people step out of line and break our rules, then we’re willing to be tough on those people – no matter how famous or how big they are.

Just as a final question. Do you think that there’s a risk that we’ll see another Bell Pottinger saga again in the PR industry in the future? Is the PR industry just geared for these kinds of problems or do you think that we’ve learnt a lot in the last year?

I think it’s absolutely unthinkable there would be a repeat of Bell Pottinger, thank God. I think that Bell Pottinger was unique at the time, and won’t be replaced anywhere in the UK. The consequences … have been very clear for anyone to see.

Francis Ingham, thank you so much for chatting to us again. It was fascinating to catch up.

Thank you, my pleasure.

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