LONDON, Sept. 4 — The UK trade association for PR firms (PRCA) has this week expelled Bell Pottinger from its ranks following an investigation into the PR firm’s work for South Africa’s controversial Gupta family. As forecast by the Holmes Report last week, the PRCA opted for the harshest possible sanction, after UK-based Bell Pottinger [...]

Business Times

UK PR association expels Bell Pottinger for ‘bringing industry into disrepute’


LONDON, Sept. 4 — The UK trade association for PR firms (PRCA) has this week expelled Bell Pottinger from its ranks following an investigation into the PR firm’s work for South Africa’s controversial Gupta family.

2011 AFP file picture of Mahinda Rajapaksa who won a second six-year term as President

As forecast by the Holmes Report last week, the PRCA opted for the harshest possible sanction, after UK-based Bell Pottinger appealed the initial unanimous decision of the organisation’s Professional Practices Committee. That decision upheld the complaint from South Africa’s Democratic Alliance opposition party, which accused the UK PR firm of stoking racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of Oakbay Investments — the conglomerate controlled by the Guptas, who are closely linked to President Jacob Zuma.

“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions,” said PRCA director general Francis Ingham. “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.”

The PRCA Board of Management met yesterday to consider Bell Pottinger’s appeal before making its final ruling in around 30 minutes, Ingham told the Holmes Report. “The Board was unanimous in concluding that BP would be expelled with immediate effect,” he said. “The mood of the board was anger and indignation and also disbelief that this work had been carried out.”

The PR firm was found to have breached the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct. Ingham pointed out that it was “vitally important” for the industry to send this message. “This is the kind of behaviour the PRCA won’t put up with,” he explained. “It might have happened sometime in the past but the vast majority of our industry today is ethical and professional. They will have been appalled by Bell Pottinger’s behaviour — I think the industry will applaud this decision.”

The PRCA expulsion is the latest twist in a saga that has gained momentum in recent weeks, accounting for the scalp of CEO James Henderson and including yesterday’s review of the firm’s work by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

In the process, Bell Pottinger has found itself dominating media headlines across the world, with the PR industry facing the kind of attention it has sought to distance itself from. “It does concern me, but the narrative changes now,” said Ingham. “We prove, as the industry’s professional body, we take ethics very seriously indeed and we’re willing to act.”

Expulsion from a trade association like the PRCA, of course, carries no actual sanction regarding Bell Pottinger’s continued business operations. However, Ingham believes the decision will affect the firm’s reputation. “Most reasonably minded people reading this story — if they were looking for a PR agency will look elsewhere. What we’re really debating is quite how negative it will be for them.”

Accordingly, the South African campaign has ended up representing the sternest test yet for Bell Pottinger, the UK firm that made its name by handling sensitive geopolitical work, including controversial regimes in Belarus, Bahrain and Sri Lanka. It has also devolved into a public battle between Henderson and founder Lord Bell, who quit the firm last year.

Henderson is understood to own 37 per cent of Bell Pottinger with his fiance Heather Kerzner. It is further believed that Bell Pottinger directors are considering all options regarding the future of the business, which has been debilitated by the ongoing scandal — with Henderson admitting to the BBC that the work has cost it relationships with key customers, including Richemont, Investec and Tourism South Africa.

After completing an MBO from Chime in 2012, Bell Pottinger restructured its business as a partnership. Chime is still understood to retain a 25 per cent stake in the firm, while other shareholders reportedly include chairman Mark Smith, co-founder Piers Pottinger and partner David Beck.

Bell Pottinger’s Sri Lanka connection   
Bell Pottinger was hired by the previous Rajapaksa government for a series of PR exercises and lobbying contracts.

According to a Sunday Times report at the time (2010), the Sri Lankan Government hired Bell Pottinger for an annual fee of more than a million Sterling Pounds which included President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to the UK. However a planned address to the Oxford Union, arranged by the firm, was cancelled purportedly due to security factors.

The paper said that another assignment for Bell Pottinger or its subsidiary, Pmplegacy, was to go on a “reputation laundering wheeze” for Sri Lanka to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The new firm had been named “lead adviser and project manager” for the Sri Lankan bid. Eventually Sri Lanka failed to secure the games.
The UK Independent newspaper in a report titled “Exposed: Public relations firm’s dealings with some of the world’s most controversial regimes” dated December 6, 2011 quoted senior executives at Bell Pottinger as telling undercover reporters that they were so influential that they had written a key speech given by the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa to the UN.

“During the address by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year, which the company said was used in preference to one prepared by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, the President suggested rules governing the humanitarian conduct of war should be re-examined. He also described his troops’ action against Tamil Tiger separatists as humanitarian,” the report said.

“We had a team working in the President’s office. We wrote the President’s speech to the UN last year which was very well received… it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go,” David Wilson, the chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, was quoted as saying during the meeting with undercover reporters.
The Independent said part of Bell Pottinger’s remit was to influence the foreign media in favour of the Sri Lankan government.

The firm sub-contracted its work in the US to the firm Qorvis, which placed an article by President Rajapaksa in the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 2009 entitled “How Sri Lanka Defeated Terrorism”. In the piece the President suggested Sri Lanka had provided a “workable model” for defeating terrorism, from which the international community could gain “valuable insight”.

In February 2010, the Wall Street Journal published a piece that discussed the “peaceful” election which returned Rajapaksa to power, and prompted several letters complaining of government violence against its critics.

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