The UK-based PRCA (Public Relations and Communications Association) has handed down its most severe sanction of a member company by banning Bell Pottinger from its ranks for at least five years. The firm was sanctioned for its work in South Africa on behalf of the Gupta family and Oakbay Company. The PRCA investigation was initiated in the wake of a complaint by the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party in South Africa. The firm was termed “unprofessional and unethical” by the PRCA. “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions…the PRCA has never passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behavior,” said Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA.
Herbert Smith, the law firm engaged by Bell Pottinger to do an independent inquiry, reported that the company’s work for the Guptas “was potentially divisive and in breach of relevant ethical principles.” Specifically, the firm “presented opponents of the Guptas and of South African President Jacob Zuma as white monopoly capital, while engineering social media profiles amplifying attacks,” according toPRWeek. “The firm may have taken steps to mislead or undermine journalists who were asking questions in relation to the campaign.”
James Henderson, the CEO of Bell Pottinger, has resigned, and the firm has pledged to abide by the PRCA code of ethics in the future.
Why is this important? An association representing our industry had the courage of its convictions and did the right thing by putting integrity before collegiality. In a voluntary group, the unfortunate tendency is to excuse misbehavior and overlook ethical breaches. It can lead to an erosion of trust where standards are enunciated in annual reports but not woven into the work.
The inevitable clash between clients and the marketing services sector over false claims on digital advertising reach is a perfect example of Armageddon. The Association of National Advertisers hires a private investigation firm that alleges gross misbehavior in ad placement and measurement. The 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) reverts with a strong statement of principles and a claim of innocence. The net effect is a loss of confidence by clients.
At a time when fake news is a risk to democracy and when trust in media is at all-time lows (15 percent among Trump voters, 25 percent in France and UK), we have a sacred obligation to truth and fair practice. What we do is deeply important to the viability of the system. People need real facts in order to make informed decisions and we cannot contaminate the flow of information. The PRCA wins a gold medal for ensuring that our industry does not fall prey to wag-the-dog-style campaign tactics. We have a responsibility to uphold the public trust.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.