A controversial London-based public relations firm at the centre of a row over stoking racial tensions in South Africa has been thrown out of the UK’s leading industry trade body, according to South African media reports.
Bell Pottinger being kicked off the Public Relations and Communications Agency (PRCA) comes after it was found to have created campaign material that was “potentially racially divisive” after the firm’s campaign targeted wealthy, white South Africans.
The PRCA has reportedly banned the agency from its membership for at least five years.
“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions and has received the harshest possible sanctions,” said Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, according to the Guardian.
“The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”
It comes after law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) released its findings on the work carried out by Bell Pottinger on the Oakbay account, owned by the powerful Gupta family.
In its review, published on Monday, the law firm said: “(Bell Pottinger’s) senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race.
“In such circumstances, BP ought to have exercised extreme care and should have closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign.
“This does not appear to have happened.”
Bell Pottinger was not responsible for inventing the term “white monopoly capital”, HSF found, and its social media campaign only involved one blog and one associated Twitter account.
But the review added: “Certain material that we have seen that was created for the campaign was negative or targeted towards wealthy white South African individuals or corporates and/or was potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive and was created in breach of relevant ethical principles.”
South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) complained to the PRCA about Bell Pottinger’s campaign.
In a statement released after the publication of HSF’s findings, the DA said: “The release of the report is nothing more than a poor attempt by Bell Pottinger to appear to be taking responsibility for the unethical campaign they ran on behalf of the Gupta family and, President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma, ahead of the release of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) report tomorrow.
“The DA will request that Bell Pottinger provides the 45,000 documents that were the subject of the HFS review, for our own review on behalf of the South African public.
“The DA looks forward to the release of the PRCA’s report on Bell Pottinger tomorrow.
“This report, by an independent organisation, not one hired by Bell Pottinger themselves, will inspire more confidence.”
Bell Pottinger’s chief executive officer James Henderson resigned at the weekend.
According to South African media reports, Bell Pottinger’s expulsion from the PRCA will take immediate effect and constitutes “the most serious sanction” the body can institute.
Bell Pottinger was founded nearly 30 years ago by Lord Timothy Bell, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.