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The PRCA had no choice but to expel Bell Pottinger, says Francis Ingham

On the PRCA logo appear the words ‘The Power of Communication’. That’s because of our strong belief in the power of our industry – it changes behaviour; it changes lives; it changes companies and Governments. And most of that power is used for good. But just occasionally, it is used instead for the wrong purposes.

Today, we expelled Bell Pottinger from the PRCA. We did so because of their unethical and racially divisive work on the Oakbay Capital account in South Africa. We did so because they had used the power of communication for a morally wrong purpose.  

Let me be frank. I took absolutely no pleasure in this action. In 2010, I brought Bell Pottinger in as a member. I was proud to do so. Proud to have convinced the company -which had always been sceptical of the PRCA- to join the ranks of those agencies that embraced regulation by the industry’s professional body.

But Bell Pottinger is no longer within that family of regulated PR agencies.

First our Professional Practices Committee, and then our Board, found that Bell Pottinger had broken both our Professional Charter, and our Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct. Accordingly, they expelled Bell Pottinger with immediate effect. They ruled that Bell Pottinger would be ineligible to apply for re-admission for a minimum period of five years. And were such an application to be received in or after 2022, two-thirds of the Board would need to vote in its favour for Bell Pottinger to be readmitted.

In our 48-year history, these are the harshest sanctions we ever have handed down to a member. They reflect the severity of Bell Pottinger’s breaches of our ethical frameworks. And they reflect how seriously we take those frameworks.

The PR and communications industry is an overwhelmingly ethical one. Companies, in-house teams, and individuals alike adhere to the highest professional and ethical standards. So when one organisation breaks those standards, and brings our industry into disrepute, it is vital that we take action.

And that is what we have done. We have taken action. We have done the right thing.

To anyone in the future who asks ‘what does the PRCA ever do for us?’  my answer will be clear: we stand up for ethics. We prove that the industry’s ethical watchdog has teeth and is prepared to bite. Any PR practitioner asked to prove their ethical credentials can point at their PRCA membership and our Charter, and feel a sense of pride.

It is not easy to expel what is arguably the most famous PR firm in the world. In doing so, we have come to our conclusions based not on emotion, but on fact. In doing so, we have striven to be completely fair to all parties concerned. In doing so, we have followed the clear rules laid down by our statutes.

And in making the decision we have, we have shown that our industry is an ethical and professional one -one that realises the great responsibility that comes with the power of communication.

Francis Ingham, director general PRCA and chief executive ICCO

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