So. Bell Pottinger is no longer a member of the PRCA. No longer a member of Europe’s largest body of PR practitioners. It’s making headlines. All of them bad. Clients appear to be walking. And its very existence as an agency appears in doubt.
I take no pleasure form this situation. I have friends at Bell Pott. And I know that many, many staff there are innocent of the malpractice for which we expelled their employer.
But I do take pride in the fact that the PRCA took decisive action and did the right thing.
It was no easy thing to expel Bell Pottinger. It’s not just any old agency after all. Probably the most famous agency in the world, and for much of its time, most certainly one of the most powerful, changing the destinies of countries and companies alike.
We expelled them because they used the power they held for the wrong purposes. They broke our ethical standards and broke them severely. That’s why we handed down the toughest punishment we’ve ever handed down to a member. And why this has been the most high profile incident of my ten-year tenure at the PRCA - higher even than when we beat the NLA in the European Court of Justice.
Putting to one side the future of Bell Pottinger as a company, and the future of its hundreds of employees, where does this leave us?
I truly believe it leaves the industry in a much stronger place than before. We have shown that the industry has standards. And we have shown that the PRCA regulatory system works. That it has teeth. That no matter how big or how famous you are, if you engage in malpractice, we will act.
Of course, people will say ‘This just proves the dark side of PR exists. Indeed, that it is prevalent’. I take the opposite view.
Over the past 48 hours or so, I have received hundreds of emails and social media messages congratulating me on the fact that the PRCA has indeed done the right thing. Those messages have come from around the world; from agency heads; comms directors; account execs; students. Those messages have conveyed the strong sense of relief that action has been taken, giving practitioners as it does the tools to draw a distinction between those of them (the great majority) who believe in and practice ethical and professional PR and communications work; and those (the small minority) who do not.
PRCA membership, and the Professional Charter and Codes that come with it, means something. It’s a badge of respectability. It says that you’re willing and able to be held accountable. I say that not in a self-serving way. But because it delivers something that an industry where the only barrier to entry is a mobile phone and a brain definitely needs.
We intend banging the drum (yes. Pun intended) for ethical practice even harder. But we also intend stating and restating the simple truth that our industry is overwhelmingly ethical and professional. And that PRCA membership is the gold standard of those virtues.
Had we found that Bell Pottinger was innocent when it was so clearly guilty, we would have inflicted very significant damage indeed on our industry. But in finding against Bell Pottinger; in imposing the harshest sanctions at our disposal; and in being so very public and transparent in our actions, I believe we have done the industry a large dose of good.
PR’s reputation could have been trashed over the past few days. Instead, it’s been enhanced. That’s what happens when you do the right thing.
Francis Ingham is the director general of the PRCA