One of Britain’s best-known PR agencies, Bell Pottinger was expelled from the industry’s trade association on Monday over a campaign adjudged to have deliberately stoked racial tensions in South Africa.
The association found that it had backed a campaign that played on still-sensitive race relations in the country in support of President Jacob Zuma and his ruling party.
The expulsion was for a minimum of five years, after which the firm could reapply – the harshest sanction possible.
I'm very clear in that expelling them today makes the damage even more considerable. I think it will be very hard for any company to come back from this.
In a statement, Bell Pottinger said it accepted there were lessons to be learned, but disputed “the basis on which the ruling was made”. It said it would continue to abide by the PRCA’s code of ethics.
The Director General of the PRCA, Francis Ingham said the reputational damage to Bell Pottinger from the work is enormous.
“I’m very clear in that expelling them today makes the damage even more considerable. I think it will be very hard for any company to come back from this. And I certainly know that in five years time if Bell Pottinger reapplies to join the PRCA, we will be scrutinising that application with more seriousness than we’ve ever deployed in the past,” he added.
Bell Pottinger is no stranger to controversy, with clients including Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and the Pinochet Foundation, which promotes the legacy of the former Chilean dictator.
But this most recent scandal has prompted two clients to drop the company, its CEO to resign and the dismissal or suspension of four members of staff.