The Public Relations and Consultants Association has been widely praised for its decisive action against Bell Pottinger. Since its move, the trade body has taken on at least a dozen new members keen to show their commitment to enforcing ethics within the industry.
But let’s not forget that this story had been brewing in the South Africa media for more than a year. The opposition party Democratic Alliance had been trying unsuccessfully to interest international media in the Gupta scandal when in desperation, after some research, it happened upon the industry’s trade bodies, and made an official complaint in July – three months after Bell Pottinger had resigned the account.
The PRCA immediately sprang into action, and announced it would investigate the complaint. Former Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson countered with the agency’s own independent investigation, firing account lead Victoria Geoghegan and suspending partner Nick Lambert and associates David Bass and Philip Peck.
Had the Democratic Alliance not complained, would the PRCA have censured Bell Pottinger? I think that unlikely. While director general Francis Ingham has amended the body’s prevailing rules to allow the PRCA to investigate incidents where it believes a member is transgressing its Codes of Conduct, it has yet to use this power. It had certainly not considered probing Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa, believing – like the British media – that this was a South African story with few local ramifications.
Perhaps the PRCA should up the ante. If its members – as they seem to indicate – are keen to promote an ethical image, and feel sure there are no nasty gremlins lurking under their bonnets, why can’t they be subject to random checks? As they pay their annual fees, each member should agree that the PRCA can – without warning – turn up to conduct an audit of their work over the course of that year. Obviously, only a handful of investigations could be carried out each year, but perhaps the threat that ‘It could be you’ would be enough to make members think twice before acting.