Bell Pottinger booted from PR body over South Africa conduct
Firm found to have broken four clauses of UK body’s code of conduct while working for Guptas, who are friends with President Zuma
London: Bell Pottinger LLP, the public-relations firm started by Margaret Thatcher’s PR adviser, has been thrown out of the UK industry body in an unprecedented ruling after an investigation found its work on behalf of the Gupta family in South Africa had stoked racial tensions.
The company’s actions “brought the industry into disrepute,” the Public Relations and Communications Association said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “It has received the harshest possible sanctions. The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”
The firm was found to have broken four clauses of the body’s code of conduct while working for the Guptas, who are friends with President Jacob Zuma and in business with his son. The rules include that members shouldn’t cause racial offence with their work and “deal fairly and honestly” with the public at all times. Bell Pottinger ran a social media campaign aimed at highlighting economic inequality in South Africa along racial grounds and targeted wealthy white individuals and companies, according to a probe by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills LLP.
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The campaign “was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that,” the PRCA said. “The committee did not find the suggestion that this theme of the campaign and its consequences were unintentional to be plausible.”
The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, filed a complaint against Bell Pottinger with the PRCA, which began its investigation in July. The company won’t be eligible to reapply for membership of the body for at least five years.
The episode has triggered a shake-up at Bell Pottinger, which was cofounded in the 1980s by Timothy Bell, who advised Prime Minister Thatcher on media matters. Chief Executive Officer James Henderson resigned on Monday, saying new leadership was needed to reform the firm. Bell left in August 2016 and founded a new company, Sans Frontieres Associates.
London-based Bell Pottinger has attracted attention in the past for taking on controversial clients like former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s foundation. According to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a US-funded anti-Al-Qaeda propaganda campaign that Bell Pottinger carried out in Iraq included fake insurgent videos used to track those who accessed them.
In South Africa, a report by the country’s graft ombudsman last year implied that the Gupta family used their political connections to influence cabinet appointments and the issuing of state contracts. Zuma and the Guptas deny the allegations, which have since intensified due to a series of leaked emails published by local media, including the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.