Copyright 2018



Bell Pottinger, a UK-based public relations and communication management consultancy, will be remembered for a long time for its association and work they delivered on behalf of South African-based Oakbay Investments. 

To regulate or not to regulate the public relations and communication industry, that is the question? At a fundamental level, the question of unethical behaviour in practitioners and clients is preponderant. My view is that professional bodies and institutes including regulators, need to champion a strong culture of ethical behaviour in the industry, although unethical behaviour could still continue even if there is regulation.  

The South African King IV report on corporate governance outlines a framework covering leadership, ethics, corporate citizenship and stakeholder relationship. The Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) is strategically placed to educate the industry on its Code of Ethics. In the absence of a regulatory and legal framework, PRISA has the responsibility to investigate complaints received around unethical conduct, and require remedial action from members. Unfortunately not everyone is a member of PRISA; therefore the institute needs to publicly make its stance known on unethical behaviour.

When viewed from a stakeholder relations point of view, Bell Pottinger failed dismally to mitigate or rather refuse to implement the brief from their client. The actions of Bell Pottinger posed serious political, economic and social risks to the South African nation. Sowing disunity and division in South Africa was at the heart of their actions and that is unconstitutional. I am still amazed that the government has been silent on this.

The development and drafting of Regulation implies that all parties, including the government and specifically Government Communication and Information Systems acknowledge the need for this. All parties in the industry need to start working well together to establish the basic discussion document, and the white paper to finally reach a bill that will define the highest standards of ethical behaviour required in the industry. Practitioners may need to be registered as professionals operating in both the public and private sector.

I am not in favour of self-regulation; this has not worked and has caused much anxiety in the industry especially when dealing with issues of transformation. I view transformation and ethics as two ends of the continuum that will continue to challenge the public relations and communication industry.

Bell Pottinger applied unethical practices when handling assignments from client Oakbay. It is in the public interest to rule categorically that implementing the Oakbay Investment brief was detrimental to the noble and higher ideals of building public trust. South Africa as a nation is much poorer by far, after this experience. The PR agency executed their work according to the brief and applied their technical abilities to satisfy their client.

It is in the public interest that the public relations and communication industry be regulated and practitioners are exemplary in their service of clients and employers. The building block is for practitioners to align to the PRISA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Standards.

Dante Mashile APR, Head of Marketing - Absa KwaZulu-Natal

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