PRCA chief: 'I was threatened for months during Bell Pottinger probe'

PRCA director general Francis Ingham was the target of threats of violence, including home visits from South African thugs, over several months during the body's investigation into Bell Pottinger a year ago.

Ingham: 'There were threats to me personally over a sustained period'
Ingham: 'There were threats to me personally over a sustained period'

Last September, the PRCA’s professional practices committee (PRC) decided to expel Bell Pottinger over its work for South African resources company Oakbay Investment designed to inflame racial tensions in the country.

The committee concluded Bell Pottinger had breached its professional charter and public affairs code of conduct and revoked its membership, which led to a client exodus and the agency’s eventual collapse.

Ingham, the public face of the PRCA inquiry into the Oakbay scandal, told PRWeek it was the most difficult period of his professional career.

ICCO launches #PowerofEthics campaign a year after Bell Pottinger closure

He received hundreds of threats and endured several home visits for at least four months, while the PRCA went to extraordinary lengths to protect the identity and activities of its professional practices committee.

"There were threats to me personally over a sustained period," Ingham said. "At the start of the process people in South Africa believed, because Bell Pottinger was a member of the PRCA and one of its directors sat on our board, we would clear Bell Pottinger of any complaints made against them and the process was rigged.

"Once we had made the decision about Bell Pottinger, the threats continued but from a different category of people in South Africa.

"People turned up to my house in London on two occasions and on one occasion to my house in the countryside."

Ingham said the thugs that visited him were South African and that he hid the visits from his family to protect them.

The PRCA chief said he was also sent "hundreds of videos" through email and social media that depicted people being killed and tortured in South Africa.

"I didn’t take it very seriously but it was rather unpleasant, low-grade threats."

During the investigation, the PRCA had to take extra precautions to hide the identity of professional practices committee members and the locations of meetings.

"When they met with representatives of Bell Pottinger and the Democratic Alliance, the address wasn’t disclosed publicly apart from to the police and we asked all parties concerned to keep the venues secret," Ingham said.

Despite the vicious nature of the threats, Ingham said that it hadn’t taken a toll on him but the decision to expel Bell Pottinger, which would invariably cost hundreds of employees their jobs, was personally taxing.

"It was most difficult decision that I’ve made in 10 years of being director general of the PRCA. I’d never felt the burden and responsibility of my job more heavily," Ingham said.

"A couple of hundred people lost their jobs. For them it was incredibly painful and I felt bad for them, but the PRCA did what it had to do.

"If we had taken the opposite decision and nothing had happened, then the self-regulation of the PR sector would have been a laughing stock."

Despite the personal burden and damage to Bell Pottinger’s staff, many of whom were unaware of the Oakbay affair, Ingham said the PRCA’s decision to expel the firm was a "proud moment for the PR industry".

"The overwhelming reaction of the industry was to applaud what we did and to say that Bell Pottinger was the exception [to the industry’s standards]," Ingham said.

"The industry I see a year on is ethical, professional and a power for good."

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