One of Britain's best known PR agencies is kicked out of the industry's trade association for a campaign judged to have deliberately stoked racial tensions in South Africa. David Doyle reports.
It calls itself a leading 'reputation management agency'. Now top British PR firm Bell Pottinger has its own reputation to manage after being judged by its trade body to have deliberately stoked racial tensions in South Africa. The firm expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association on Monday (September 4) following work in support of President Jacob Zuma and his ruling party. That campaign portrayed Zuma's opponents as agents of "white monopoly capital" and coined slogans of "economic apartheid". Such soundbites gained traction in a country where the white minority still wields disporportionate economic power, two decades after the end of apartheid. South Africa's main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, complained to the UK's PRCA about the campaign, prompting the trade body to expel Bell Pottinger for what PRCA director-general Francis Ingham called "completely unethical and unprofessional work". (SOUNDBITE) (English) DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE PRCA, FRANCIS INGHAM, SAYING: "It's the worst work I've ever seen, and I've been representing the PRCA for 10 years. I've seen nothing worse than it. And therefore we took the ultimate sanction of expelling them immediately and saying if they wish to re-apply for membership, they can't do so for at least five years." While the firm can continue to operate as normal, the ruling is likely to hit perceptions of it in an industry that trades on reputation. And Ingham said the reputational damage from the ruling will be enormous. Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson resigned on Monday and the company - whose clients include Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad and the Pinochet Foundation - has accepted there are "lessons to be learned" and has apologised, though it disputes the "basis on which the ruling was made".