Bell Pottinger has been thrown out of the UK industry body for public relations companies in an unprecedented ruling following an investigation into work it carried out on behalf of the Gupta family in South Africa.
The company’s actions “brought the industry into disrepute”, the Public Relations and Communications Association said in an e-mailed 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.
The campaign “was by any reasonable standard of judgment 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. CEO James Henderson resigned on Monday, saying new leadership was needed to reform the firm.
A report by South Africa’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 e-mails published by local media, including the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. — Reported by John Bowker, (c) 2017 Bloomberg LP