In the light of the Bell Pottinger scandal, how do we – or how does the industry – stop its worst excesses? One obvious answer is regulation and legislation.
PR agencies can be required to join industry associations, which can then discipline or expel them if misdemeanours occur. It was after all the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) that really saw to Bell Pottinger, by excluding them for five years. South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance had been forced to submit its complaints over the agency to regulatory bodies in London rather than at home, so it is clear that such close regulation is now required in Africa.
Pretoria seems to be stepping up to the plate. Although Bell Pottinger was acting for individuals with close ties to the presidency, the government itself has proposed the creation of a national body with responsibility for governance.
A regulatory organisation, the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA), already exists, although agencies are not legally required to be members in order to operate. The existing PRISA code demands accuracy and integrity, plus a promise not to knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly communicate false or misleading information.
PRISA, which currently has about 1,000 members, requires both its member organisations and their employees to abide by its code of ethics. The Institute can publicise the unethical actions of agencies that are not among its members, of which there are many, but there is nothing else it can do to discipline them. Pretoria has drawn up a regulatory green paper and has asked PRISA and other stakeholders for their views before turning it into a white paper to be put before parliament.
Kavitha Kalicharan, the president of PRISA, commented: “The wheels do turn quite slowly because this is obviously legislation. Where we are currently, is engagement with the various stakeholders, more specifically the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), engaging with the Minister and getting the Minister’s approval and buy-in. This is not a quick process; it is going to be a longer process to achieve that.” She predicts that it will take up to 18 months to complete the consultation process.
PR agencies may be more welcoming of regulation given the damage that has been caused to the industry’s own reputation in South Africa by the Bell Pottinger scandal.
PRISA is in favour of fining companies or individuals proven to have acted unethically and also making the public aware of their wrongdoing. Kalicharan said: “It may seem like the repercussions are not that great; however, if you look at the current Bell Pottinger saga, the reputational damage that was caused to them when the PRCA handed down the ruling… it was one of the harshest sentences it has passed.”
PRISA’s call for formal industry regulation may have been made with one eye on strengthening its own position, but it could just as easily lead to it being sidelined by the creation of a government-appointed body. The managing director of South Africa’s Lion’s Wing Brand Communications, Greg Forbes, said: “The broader industry should ascribe to a code, and when someone steps into the realm of seeding messages that undermine cohesion in society, it shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Whichever organisation takes on the role of industry watchdog, it is likely to follow the code of ethics and standards of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. PRISA vice president Daniel Munslow said: “For an industry body like PRISA to be able to enforce its comprehensive code of ethics, there is a need to empower it to investigate formal complaints received around unethical conduct, and enforce suitable remedial action on members.”
Regulators and member associations can help ensure that their members fully understand the limits on how far they can take their campaigns. The Bell Pottinger case has brought the credibility of the entire industry into question. It could be argued that the whole saga has actually served the Guptas positively to some extent. Bell Pottinger has attracted some of the flak that would otherwise have been directed at the Guptas. It will be interesting to see whether any other agencies are prepared to work for the family in South Africa.