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Take that, Bell Pottinger: Guptas' PR firm given UK's harshest industry smackdown

Monday's reveal of the results of an independent review commissioned by Bell Pottinger into its work on the Gupta account was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that the PR industry regulator has handed down the harshest possible sanction to the firm.
Original photo of the Gupta brothers by Gallo Images, republished with permission from Daily Maverick.

Bell Pottinger has been stripped of its membership of the PRCA after being found to have brought the entire PR industry into disrepute. Though the language of Bell Pottinger's commissioned review was vague, the PRCA's findings were unequivocal.

The director of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) did not mince his words in a statement intended to be made public early on Tuesday morning, but revealed prematurely following Media24’s questionable decision to break the embargo around the news.

“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions,” Francis Ingham stated. “The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”

Ingham’s remarks accompanied a statement announcing that Bell Pottinger has been expelled from the PRCA after breaching four clauses of the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct through its work for the Gupta family in South Africa. The campaign in question was aimed at improving the standing of the Guptas by presenting the brothers and their associates as footsoldiers in a noble crusade against “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid”.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) laid a complaint with the PRCA in June which resulted in a disciplinary hearing for Bell Pottinger at which both the PR firm and the DA made oral submissions. After completing their investigation, the PRCA’s Professional Practices Committee was unanimous in its assessment of Bell Pottinger’s wrongdoing.

The PRCA found that Bell Pottinger’s campaign on behalf of the Guptas “was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that”. It dismissed Bell Pottinger’s defence that the consequences of the campaign were “unintentional”, terming this implausible.

The PR regulator was similarly dismissive of Bell Pottinger’s claim that the “economic apartheid” campaign was only one element of its work, which it alleged was essentially “corporate and financial by nature”. The PCRA said it was unable to “reconcile these assertions with what actually happened in terms of the reaction to the campaign and the level of criticism which it provoked”.

The PRCA revealed that Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson, who has since resigned, admitted to the committee that the firm’s work “fell short of Bell Pottinger’s own standards”. By extension, the committee resolved that “Bell Pottinger failed to maintain and protect its own reputation and the standing of the profession as a whole”.

Henderson’s claim that senior management was kept in the dark about aspects of the campaign was rejected by the PRCA as unconvincing when compared with standard practice for “large consultancies implementing opinion-forming programmes in sensitive or volatile climates”.

Perhaps most damningly, the PRCA found that the work undertaken for the Guptas “has caused damage to the reputations of both Bell Pottinger and the profession of public affairs and lobbying”.

It’s hard to imagine a more decisive condemnation of Bell Pottinger’s actions. By comparison, the findings of an independent review commissioned by Bell Pottinger by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills seem vague and inadequate.

The law firm explains in its findings – published on Monday – that it can only reveal “high level”, “broad” conclusions due to “confidentiality obligations”.

If one reads between the lines, it is also unclear what level of co-operation the law firm received from Bell Pottinger. “Our findings are based solely on the documents and information that we have been able to obtain in the course of our review and are subject to that limitation,” the report states. It further adds that one member of the team who worked on the Gupta account refused to carry out a “more detailed” second interview.

These constraints may explain the lack of weight to the law firm’s findings, and their relative timidity. The harshest criticism that Herbert Smith Freehills offers is the following:

“While we do not consider that it was a breach of relevant ethical principles to agree to undertake the economic emancipation campaign mandate per se, members of BP’s 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.”

In the interests of close scrutiny, Daily Maverick fact-checked a number of assertions contained in the Herbert Smith Freehills review.

Claim: “Bell Pottinger does not believe that the actions taken in relation to this account are representative of the way it works in general.”

Fact: Half-true. While it may be technically correct that Bell Pottinger has not used the exact same techniques elsewhere, it has certainly deployed similar dirty tricks online. In 2011, the company was found to have used pseudonymous accounts to edit its clients’ Wikipedia entries, for instance – a move which led Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to accuse the firm of “ethical blindness”.

Bell Pottinger is also no stranger to the dissemination of fake news or disinformation campaigns. In 2016, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed how the firm created fake al-Qaeda propaganda films for the Pentagon in Iraq in order to track who was watching them. They also created news items made to look as if they originated from Arabic TV.

Claim: “In the early months the majority of BP’s work on the Oakbay account was spent in relation to the corporate communications work stream. The BP account team spent increasing amounts of time on the economic emancipation campaign from around September 2016.”

Fact: Untrue. The #GuptaLeaks emails show that from the very beginning, Bell Pottinger was working on crafting the narrative that would become the economic emancipation campaign. In January 2016, the firm’s Victoria Geoghegan met with Duduzane Zuma to strategise a campaign which she described in an email as aimed at marketing a “non-party political narrative around the existence of economic apartheid and the vital need for more economic emancipation”. Zuma replied, on 20 January 2016, that he would require assistance “in the designing and creating a hard-hitting message along the lines of the #EconomicEmancipation or whatever it is”.

On 6 February, 2016, Geoghegan circulated proposed talking points for ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine to use at a Tshwane rally. Her suggested content for Maine ended with the line: “We need to END ECONOMIC APARTHEID”.

The law firm’s finding that the economic narrative was only put on the agenda in the second half of 2017 is therefore false.

Claim: “We have seen no evidence to suggest that the term [white monopoly capital] was one that BP invented.”

Fact: True. Economist Chris Malikane dates the term in South Africa to 1962, to the SACP document “The Road to South African Freedom”. Malikane himself wrote a paper in 2002 which employs the term liberally. Variations on the theme have been around since the heyday of Marxism, with the Freedom Charter referring to the “monopoly industry”. At the ANC’s 2007 congress in Polokwane, the ANC resolved that “Monopoly capital was identified as the chief enemy of the [national democratic revolution]”.

There’s no doubt that the Bell Pottinger pro-Gupta campaign helped to popularise the term more recently, however.

The law firm’s review outlines a number of steps that Bell Pottinger has pledged to take in future. They include more robust engagement with new clients, more staff training on social media, an “ethics training programme” for all employees, and the development of a culture in which junior employees feel empowered to question or challenge work.

The law firm concluded: “Bell Pottinger is determined to learn lessons from this review, take appropriate action and instigate all necessary measures to ensure that the agency meets the highest ethical and industry standards which it has always endeavoured to uphold.”

When it comes to industry standards, however, Bell Pottinger is officially out in the cold. The PRCA announced that the firm will not be able to re-apply for membership of the industry regulator until at least 2022.

For those wondering what this will mean for Bell Pottinger in practice, however, the answer is that the rebuke is more symbolic than it is practical.

As Daily Maverick previously reported, the only other firm to have been expelled from the PRCA in at least a decade is still in business.

The loss of PRCA membership perhaps makes it more likely, however, that the mooted buyout of Bell Pottinger’s component parts will take place. If that proves to be the case, Bell Pottinger as we currently know it will be no more. That would mean another piece of collateral damage in the Gupta family’s quest to capture South Africa, and one few people are likely to shed a tear over.

Republished with permission from The Daily Maverick, original photo of the Gupta brothers by Gallo Images.


Daily Maverick
Daily Maverick is a unique blend of news, information, analysis and opinion delivered from our newsrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. There are many ways to describe exactly what we do (and for the price of a cup of coffee we’re capable of talking your ears off about it), but the best way to understand the end result is to experience it. Every part of Daily Maverick is free-to-air and no payment is required, although free registration is required for a small subset of functions and pages.

Daily Maverick is run by an independently owned, private company with no affiliation to any other media group (or political party or religious organisation.) Follow Daily Maverick on Twitter at @dailymaverick.
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Elizabeth Pretorius
Old habits die hard - BellPottinger, the Guptas and spin campaigns: a new or ongoing wave of British imperialism? Or just plain old igno-arrogance?Spin may have been invented in the US, but the British have done their best to perfect it. And often to destabilize independent nation states or hide their responsibility in doing so if reports are to be believed. How else does one try to understand the actions of Bell Pottinger, Victoria Geoghegon and the management team of the firm, in the wake of the details surfacing of a campaign to destabilize South Africa along racial divides?What but igno-arrogance or audacious stupidity would prompt a pr company in the British capital to take on a campaign on behalf of state looters posing as naturalized citizens, and their handlers (or puppets?) to invent messages and stir up racial tension, in order to hide and justify criminal activity? And in doing so interfere in the internal matters of another independent state? And what would explain the silence on this matter from the British Government, the Foreign Office, the British High Commission to South Africa and the British Council? The British Prime Minister Theresa May pronounced on Pride in London, she suspended Anne Marie Morris for using an unsavoury word, yet remains mum on the interference by a British pr company in the internal affairs of a democracy. Is it because not much has changed? The previous time the British was involved in atrocities in the region, hidden by “lies as spin”, is yet to receive an apology. A mention even. Winston Churchill was very vocal about German atrocities against Jews - yet to this day the original inventors of concentration camps in which women and children and the elderly, black and white, got starved to death in South Africa, have yet to take ownership: minus the spin at the time trying to justify the horror. The South Africa War (Boer War) - 1899 - 1902.“According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica nearly 100,000 lives were lost, including those of more than 20,000 British troops and 14,000 Boer troops. Noncombatant deaths include the more than 26,000 Boer women and children estimated to have died in the concentration camps from malnutrition and disease; the total number of African deaths in the concentration camps was not recorded, but estimates range from 13,000 to 20,000.Military casualties: 9,098 died (4,000 in combat) (24,000 Boer prisoners sent overseas)”In “Propaganda wars” Phillip Knightley places the Kosovo atrocity stories in their historical context. • Saturday 26 June 1999 23:02 BSTIf history is any guide, then many of the atrocity stories from Kosovo that have dominated the media since the end of the war will turn out to be false. Written and filmed by some of the self-styled "mass-grave correspondents", they may at the moment appear to have the chilling ring of truth: after all, mass graves have unquestionably been found. Some of the stories may indeed be genuine, but many will vanish under investigation, or the scrutiny of time.When passions have cooled - as one hopes that they will even in the hate-strewn Balkans - we may even hear the confessions of those who invented them. Invented? In the case of Kosovo the inventions will have been the work not of British journalists but of those feeding them with information. In the Boer War, however, the British press invented hundreds of atrocity stories - Boer civilians murdered wounded British soldiers; Boer soldiers massacred pro-British civilians; Boers executed other Boers who wanted to surrender; Boers attacked British Red Cross tents while brave British doctors and nurses were treating the wounded.They were all made up, spun out of the imagination of the journalists, rendered more believable by artists back home who specialised in atrocity drawings. The attack on the Red Cross tent was even deemed worth filming, and when presented as genuine documentary footage caused great outrage against the beastly Boers. It was actually shot with actors on Hampstead Heath.” For full article see the numerous reports on Bell Pottinger are to be believed, it is not the first time they have involved themselves in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Providing “electoral support” in Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Malawi according to a research report released by the SACP entitled “Bell Pottinger – PR Support for the Gupta family”, they have served many a political cause – mostly unsavoury. Election outcomes in some countries are said to have been affected. According to an article published on the Daily Maverick site by Marianne Thamm, “Analysis: Bell Pottinger – more than just spin, it’s political interference in sovereign states” they act as “modern day economic mercenaries meddling in political and electoral affairs of democracies across Africa.”Bell Pottinger has issued denials (which proved to be a bunch of lies/more “spin”?) about the true state of affairs; announced the resignation of some (the firm should close down as this work could not have been undertaken without knowledge of the senior leadership) and offered an apology (Really? And that should suffice?) The following should be made public:- who was the client- by whom was the client represented- what was the brief – the original documents, not the sanitized, “spin”version- what research and scanning of the environment was done to inform the campaign- full detail of the campaign planned and objectives to be achieved (key messages, moments, narrative, measurements etc)- full disclosure of payments received – amounts, bank accounts, signatures etc in order to trace if the South African taxpayer in the end may also just have paid, as with the lavish wedding etc, for the very campaign against them. The British declared war against Argentina for claiming territory they believe to be their property in the 1980’s – the Falklands. Recently the British public voted to leave the EU because they cannot bear to abide by the rules of the game of the body they voluntarily joined. Yet the British government and public for that matter, remain silent on pr companies meddling in the affairs of autonomous states. What is the difference between this and the actions of supporters of a specific religion when deciding they are going to infiltrate an independent state in order to destabilize it by attacking and killing citizens? Violating international law, human rights and the quality of life of ordinary citizens in the process? Sowing hatred and dissent? Why would a pr company see fit to perpetrate pr cyber-acts of terrorism and sabotage against the citizens of an independent country by using a fake narrative, people and events and then apologise to be let off the hook? Public relations, communications and reputation management should not be utilized as tools to defend the morally indefensible through lies and to the detriment of others. And never from a position of igno-arrogance and/or cultural superiority. And a thorough knowledge of history matters: especially when meddling in world politics. Myopic island existence is not an excuse: especially not for a former empire.
Posted on 5 Sep 2017 13:48