Bell Pottinger has damaged the image of PR worldwide


Recently, a leading South African media personality responded to complaints about the ravages of “fake news” flooding the country, saying: “If it is fake news, it is not news.”

Would that this were so. Unfortunately, for many people, news is news is news because they are un-able to discriminate between real news and “news that is not news”.

As if that is not bad enough, South Africa is now infected by a fake public relations exercise laced with a dollop of unadulterated racism. This has been framed around so-called “white monopoly capital”. In a country that is still reeling from the legacy of apartheid, this is a monster that has yet to be tamed.

Bell Pottinger, with its ill-advised public relations project for the Guptas’ Oakbay company, could not have happened to this country at a worse time.

In the world of public relations, perception is reality. It is for this reason that Bell Pottinger’s devastating blunder has delivered a serious blow to public relations agencies and practitioners around the world.

The London-based spin company has since apologised in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. “Not good enough!” many in South Africa are screaming. Among these is the Democratic Alliance, which has reported the firm to the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in London for violating the association’s professional charter and code of conduct by allegedly sowing racial division in South Africa. The DA wants Bell Pottinger to make reparations. I concur.

The party’s international wing, DA Abroad, staged a picket at the Bell Pottinger offices in London in protest, and handed over a memorandum with several demands.

These include a call for the firm to publish all communications and contracts to do with the work done for the Guptas, to declare all funds received for services rendered to the Guptas and the ANC, and to invest the funds in building schools or donate them to nongovernmental organisations.

The saga has given the practice of public relations a very bad name. For most PR practitioners, high ethical standards and unquestionable professionalism were drummed into our heads. In one devastating blow, Bell Pottinger has damaged the image of PR and it will probably take decades for the sector to recover and to restore its image of trustworthiness, respectability and professionalism.

The Public Relations Institute of South Africa (Prisa), the PRCA and other professional associations have their work cut out.

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management should join the PRCA in its efforts to get Bell Pottinger to “do the right thing” by the people of South Africa and the PR profession.

In his apology, Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson had this to say: “We wish to make a full, un­equivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that it happened.”

Indeed, we are also deeply sorry that “it happened”. More than 50-million South Africans have been negatively “impacted” by the actions of this company. A mere apology can never be good enough, because an apology cannot put things right.

Ironically, we have been told that Bell Pottinger has cut its ties with Oakbay because they were “the target of a politically driven smear campaign in South Africa over the last few months, with a number of totally false and damaging accusations levelled”.

Look who’s talking! Politically driven smear campaign? What was “white monopoly capital” all about? Clearly, a politically driven, monied, fake PR campaign to bedevil race relations in South Africa.

The DA is right: “For an international PR agency to sow racial divisions in a country still grappling with a very painful past, for the sole benefit of a corrupt few, is simply unethical.”

Such behaviour may also be deemed criminally irresponsible in South Africa.

Sejamothopo Motau is a DA MP and a former president of Prisa

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