The issue of unethical behaviour that has been so widely condemned has not only become a PR challenge but has had a ripple effect impacting the foundations of democracy in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger, the United Kingdom public relations firm, was slammed for its controversial handling of the Gupta family account. It has lost numerous clients due to the racially divisive nature of their South African campaign on behalf of the Guptas.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) laid a complaint against Bell Pottinger with the United Kingdom’s Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA), which resulted in the expulsion of the firm for a minimum of five years. DA MP Phumzile van Damme reiterated that the backlash against Bell Pottinger should have happened to the Gupta family as well.

A pertinent question now is what recourse can be taken in the future against individuals or organisations that follow suit with this kind of unacceptable behaviour. Is a mere slap on the wrist really enough, or is more serious recourse justified as the PR industry is not regulated? The answer is far from straightforward.

It will take some time to regulate the PR industry in South Africa, as the current discussion document (green paper) still needs to evolve into a white paper outlining a broad statement of government policy before it can be passed as legislation by parliament. However, considering the reputational damage that Bell Pottinger has suffered through, their expulsion as a member of the PRCA, this repercussion far outweighs any financial penalty that could have been handed down.

At a time when the decline in the morals and ethics is so evident, the challenge is how we can play a pivotal role in convincing individuals and organisations that this type of behaviour should not be entertained in the business and political environments.

Having to operate within an industry that is not yet regulated in South Africa raises the question of the recourse that should be taken against those who default. Despite the gloomy climate, all hope is not lost.

The Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) is a professional body representing not only individuals and corporates, but agencies that specialise in public relations and communication.

As a membership organisation, PRISA has adapted its Code of Ethics and Professional Standards to the practice of Public Relations and Communication Management in line with the Global Alliance (GA) protocol. When a member or agency joins PRISA, they commit themselves to abide by the principles and values contained in the Code of Ethics.

The Bell Pottinger saga has merely highlighted the fact that all public relations and communication professionals need to clearly understand the mandate and scope of the work they may decide to assist with. When lucrative financial rewards are at stake, an organisations’ ability to differentiate between operating ethically and merely looking at the financial gain may become clouded.

The issue of unethical behaviour is not only a PR challenge, it affects all industries. As PRISA president, I appeal to all industries to support our vision to regulate the public relations and communication industry. It is imperative that organisations ensure that they employ individuals or agencies who align themselves with PRISA’s Code of Ethics.

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