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Bell Pottinger kicked out of PR trade body as report slams 'race hate' South Africa campaign

Bell Pottinger has been thrown out of the PR trade association after an independent report into a campaign it ran in South Africa for the billionaire Gupta family that was accused of stoking racial tensions found failings in the way senior managers handled the work.
The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) said it was imposing “the harshest possible sanctions” on the City agency after investigating a complaint made by South African opposition political party the Democratic Alliance.
The complaint was over Bell Pottinger’s work for the Guptas, which included a campaign that targeted wealthy white South African business rivals to allegedly deflect attention from the Guptas’ close links to president Jacob Zuma.
The storm had already claimed the firm’s chief executive James Henderson’s job, after he resigned over the weekend.
The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviourFrancis Ingham, PRCA
“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions,” said Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA.
“The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.
“This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communications.”
Bell Pottinger’s membership has been terminated with immediate effect and it cannot reapply for at least five years, after the PRCA found it breached four clauses of its conduct charters.
The decision was made by the PRCA’s professional practices committee and rubber stamped by its board of 21 high-powered current or former PRs, including Neil Bennett of Maitland, Ed Williams of Edelman and Tony Langham of Lansons.
In response the agency said in a statement: “Bell Pottinger acknowledges the PRCA ruling, accepts that there are lessons to be learned but disputes the basis on which the ruling was made.”
It added that it would continue to abide by the PRCA’s code of ethical conduct on a voluntary basis and its staff would consider applying for individual membership.
Bell Pottinger kicked out of PR trade body as report slams 'race hate' South Africa campaign

South African president Jacob Zuma

Credit:
 Mikhail Metzel / TASS
An investigation commissioned by Bell Pottinger carried out by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, a summary of which was published today, found the agency’s work for Gupta-owned company Oakbay included material that was “potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive”.
Bell Pottinger worked for Oakbay between the start of 2016 and April this year – a deal understood to be worth ?100,000 a month – for corporate PR work and to run a campaign for “economic emancipation” in South Africa.
Herbert Smith says the brief was not unethical “per se”, but that Bell Pottinger’s work thereafter breached ethical principles.
The law firm finds the agency promoted the term “white monopoly capital” through its campaign and took steps that “might mislead or undermine journalists” when its campaign was questioned. It said it had not seen evidence the agency had used Twitterbots as has been claimed.
Bell Pottinger’s senior management also came in for heavy criticism for failing to scrutinise the work, with the report adding they “should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race” and appointed a team with more geopolitical expertise.
I accept that as CEO, I have ultimate executive responsibility for Bell PottingerJames Henderson
It also highlighted senior management missed a “series of opportunities … to discover these matters”, while also criticising the account team for giving an “inaccurate and misleading” impression of its activities.
In a statement, Mr Henderson said that while he had not initiated or been involved in the work for Oakbay, he accepted responsibility.
“I accept that as CEO, I have ultimate executive responsibility for Bell Pottinger,” he said. But he added that he felt “deeply let down by the colleagues who misled me”.
Bell Pottinger has said it will conduct a more “formal and robust” review of any new commissions and set up an ethics board.
The latest developments are likely to spark further speculation about Bell Pottinger’s future, after some clients had already turned their back on the agency.
Mr Henderson, who together with fiancee Heather Kerzner owns 40pc of the agency, said on Sunday “a number of options” were being considered for the firm’s future including a buy-out, sale or rebuilding as a standalone company.
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