Could South African Sleaze Force PR to Clean Up its Act?

The emerging scandal in South Africa involving PR giants Bell Pottinger, and the country’s most infamous family dynasty, is a spectacular emergency; if the global public cared more about Africa it would be a wildfire. Allegations of race-baiting and shady dealings normally sink companies and governments; several have already gone here, and the Gupta family and President Zuma must be thanking their lucky stars that there’s more than enough of it in the States and Europe at the moment to draw international heat.

For context, the Gupta family head a burgeoning South African business empire, and have spent decades courting members of the ruling ANC to curry political favour. When president and ethnic Zulu Jacob Zuma was caught at the centre of rape accusations in 2006, his political future looked bleak as the predominantly Xhosa ANC abandoned him. The Guptas bankrolled the president through the period, and in return bought the promise of huge influence.

As Zuma recovered, scrutiny began to fall on the family, revealing that their ventures weren’t all scrupulous. What followed was a coordinated campaign of harassment and smears against journalists, political opponents and business rivals, which, it is alleged, tapped into the Rainbow Nation’s longstanding tribal and racial tensions.

What role Bell Pottinger played in the affair is unclear. They dispute allegations made against them, insisting work done was strictly above board. That hasn’t stopped them being found guilty of breaching the PRCA’s code of conduct. What sanction they will face is uncertain, but it has already cost one partner their job, whilst CEO James Henderson has resigned.

PR’s around the world exist in a bubble that affords them a degree of security. Laymen aren’t interested in the goings on of an industry that baffles them, which lets firms behave with impunity. This allows scope for risk-taking, but if left unchecked, rot can to set in. That’s how situations like South Africa arise.

This is unforgiveable. Whilst looking furtively round for the gust of wind that could send the whole thing over, a house of cards is doomed if the foundations are unsound and rotten to begin with. And that is what the PR industry faces. Arguably many other agencies have engaged in business with shady people; the twentieth century is littered with examples of opaque dealings, but most have kept their heads below the parapet. Global PR’s don’t get to be global by hogging the limelight; the biggest skill is remaining anonymous, standing back in the shadows behind the headlines they generate.

Recent checks on the conduct of lobbyists has been long overdue, and many have welcomed tighter checks on tactics. Critics suggest this scrutiny was timid and cosmetic, but that may be about to change. This was the event everyone feared; not a bolt from the blue, but an entirely self-made issue. The Bell Pottinger affair isn’t a gust of wind; it’s the rot.

Root and Branch reform needs to continue as the business goes through further disruption caused by the social age in which it finds itself. But PR is a Hydra; cut off a head, and more appear. The risks posed are numerous. The PCRA faces a challenge to take a firm line with Bell Pottinger, to make an example of them, to give some semblance of transparency. There are so many PR companies that operate without PRCA membership, some argue it is not a level playing field.

Besides, what might a firm line lead to? Bell Pottinger could take legal action for loss of reputation and business. Theirs is a hard, determined firm like no other. They wouldn’t go quietly. Would it deter others from taking these previously so profitable risks? Not when the rewards are so great. Is there even the will to do it? Who sits on the PCRA’s Professional Practices Committee isn’t exactly transparent, which is, of course, part of the problem. Without that accountability, there can be little hope of reform.

Of course, the ultimate irony is, if cast adrift, certain consultants may no longer need to linger in the shadows. Bell Pottinger might, radically, decide to drop the name and rebrand. This is so difficult to second guess; being known as a consultant from the go-to agency when things are really at their worst may not be a bad thing. The moral compass, for some, is an unknown concept: like a magnet, BP have attracted a litany of history’s bad guys in the past, from Pistorius to Pinochet to BAE systems. It’s doubtful that this being common knowledge would be bad for business. After all, it would save time for individuals seeking them out. Perhaps more perversely, wouldn’t it also represent the transparency the industry so desperately needs? Unwittingly, Bell Pottinger might be about to lead the way.