South Africa
Supporters of South African president Jacob Zuma at a demonstration march in Cape Town in August 2017. Their placard refers to a phrase the coined by the PR firm Bell Pottinger which has been kicked out of the UK trade body. Getty

The future of public relations firm Bell Pottinger is in doubt after it was expelled for five years from the UK trade body due to work on a contract in South Africa that was found to have sowed racial division.

The PR firm's work for the South African company Oakbay Capital was described as "absolutely unthinkable" with its campaign underlining the power of white-owned businesses via the #WhiteMonopolyCapital hashtag.

In the first ever expulsion by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) whose chief said the work by Bell Pottinger had "incited racial hatred", after a review following a complaint by South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance.

Oakbay is owned by the wealthy Gupta family which has ties with South African president, Jacob Zuma who faces claims of corruption over his links to the family. Both the Gupta family and Zuma deny wrongdoing.

An independent review found that the firm had contravened two clauses of the PRCA's professional charter and two clauses of its public affairs and lobbying code of conduct.

South Africa flag
Bell Pottinger was accused of sowing racial hatred in South Africa in a campaign that has led to its expulsion from the UK trade body for five years Getty

The review said: "Bell Pottinger senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race.

"In such circumstances, BP ought to have exercised extreme care and should have closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign. This does not appear to have happened," the report said.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham said: "Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions," he said.

Bell Pottinger said it acknowledged the PRCA ruling, and that "there are lessons to be learned but disputes the basis on which the ruling was made".

"The overwhelming majority of our partners and employees played no part in the Oakbay Capital account and have not been accused of breaching the PRCA code. Many of them will now consider applying for individual membership.

The firm, founded by Lord Bell, has lost clients over the affair such as Richemont and Investec with more expected to follow. James Henderson has resigned as chief executive.

Labour peer Peter Hain will table questions in the House of Lords on Tuesday (5 September) over whether Bell Pottinger's actions broke any UK trade policies.