One of the UK’s largest public relations firms has been kicked out of the country’s industry body after it managed a campaign to stoke racial tension in South Africa.
Bell Pottinger became a pariah when the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) announced its expulsion from the industry regulator on Sept. 4. The firm was sanctioned last week and given a week to appeal, which failed to change the final decision.
The firm was found to have breached the industry’s ethical standards when it ran a campaign that shifted focus on racial inequality in South Africa, in order to distract from mounting corruption allegations leveled against president Jacob Zuma and the wealthy Gupta family.
Bell Pottinger may not re-apply for membership for five years, the harshest sentence ever imposed, said the association. Hours before the announcement, Bell Pottinger’s chief executive James Henderson stepped down.
“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions,” said the association’s director general Francis Ingram. The firm said it accepts the ruling, adding that staff members not involved in the matter may apply for individual membership, according to the BBC.
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, laid a complaint with the association, which led to the industry investigation. Bell Pottinger walked away from the Oakbay account in July after protest from South Africans, citing online harassment (pdf) of their staff. The firm fired the executives behind the campaign and apologized, but it was roundly rejected by South African civil society, who believed the campaign had real power to stir discord in a country still struggling with its past.
For the year that Bell Pottinger worked for the Gupta’s company Oakbay Capital, they successfully introduced the phrase “white monopoly capital” into popular discourse in South Africa. The phrase was shorthand for the lack of wealth distribution in South Africa and the continued concentration of capital in white hands. The PR campaign involved the creation of dozens of fake Twitter accounts to get “white monopoly capital” trending, spreading material on “economic apartheid” and undermining journalists who questioned this.
Cynically, the lingering effects of apartheid were used to shout down any criticism of Zuma and the Guptas. The Indian immigrant family has become among South Africa’s wealthiest thanks to their affiliation with Zuma and his family. A report detailing their power over the state has attracted negative attention, which the Gupta’s apparently tried to counteract when they hired Bell Pottinger.
The communications firm will likely struggle to salvage its own reputation, and has already lost clients over the Gupta scandal. Luxury goods company Richemont, founded by South African Johann Rupert, abandoned the firm along with investment bank Investec, also established in South Africa. Bell Pottinger’s co-founder, Lord Tim Bell, expects them to lose more clients. Bell apparently met with the Gupta family early last year, and was immediately uncomfortable by the work the family had commissioned.
“I kept saying it was smelly,” Bell said, according to industry news website PR Week, but said that the firm’s executives ignored him.
The firms other clients have included South Africa’s last apartheid-era president F. W. de Klerk, Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad and Oscar Pistorius, during his murder trial. They’ve also worked with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and were instrumental in establishing the Pinochet Foundation to rehabiliate the image of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.