We’re not entirely sure how Bell Pottinger… an agency that is known for managing ‘public images’ got it so wrong but the internet is loving it, and owning them.
From Twitter updates to Facebook posts and now even the Wikipedia page for the organization has come under fire after the recent South Africa scandal.
Bell Pottinger, one of the world’s richest and most powerful public-relations firms, has made its fortune by burnishing the images of the autocratic and the notorious, from Augusto Pinochet of Chile to the First Lady of Syria and the repressive regimes of Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But the London-based agency, founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former spin doctor, may have finally met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa. When it secretly devised a racially divisive campaign on behalf of President Jacob Zuma’s son and business cronies for a fee of about $170,000 (over R2 million) a month, the campaign soon spiralled into disaster.
This week, Bell Pottinger formally apologized to the people of South Africa, admitting that its tactics were “offensive” and unethical. It fired a senior employee, suspended three others, expressed “profound regret,” and promised to publish the findings of an independent investigation.
But South Africans and many around the globe have not taken lightly to their ‘apology’ after the news broke yesterday.
The #BellPottinger saga… they're sorry because:
— Brent Lindeque (@BrentLindeque) July 7, 2017
— Tom Eaton (@TomEatonSA) July 6, 2017
— Gugulethu Mhlungu (@GugsM) July 6, 2017
Now you know who wrote Zuma's non-apology "for the frustration & confusion" caused by his "unintentional" Nkandla enrichment #BellPottinger
— Dali Mpofu (@AdvDali_Mpofu) July 7, 2017
#BellPottinger's apology is nothing but odious spin doctoring. It's like saying I'm sorry for whatever you think I did wrong
— Zakes Mda (@ZakesMda) July 6, 2017
The companies Wikipedia page was also updated to showcase the PR firms ties to “the most controversial client list” like the Guptas and points out how they were actually known for “editing Wikipedia pages”.
“Bell Pottinger Private (legally BPP Communications Ltd.; informally Bell Pottinger) is a British multinational public relations and marketing company headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It was the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income.”
“Bell Pottinger offers services such as lobbying, speech writing, search engine optimisation to clients including companies, governments and rich individuals.”
“The firm has been described as having “the most controversial client list” in the PR industry. It has been criticised numerous times for edits that the company has made on Wikipedia pages that involve or are about their clients.”
“According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the company was hired by the Pentagon to work in Iraq, making fake terror and news-style videos, against the interests of al-Qaeda for the reported sum of $540m.“
“In 2017, following a sustained social media campaign and an internal investigation, Bell Pottinger fired a lead partner, suspended 3 other employees and apologised for sowing racial animosity in South Africa, as part of a contract with the controversial Gupta family.”
The updated article goes on to explain how the PR firm was involved in South Africas ‘State Capture’.
“Bell Pottinger also worked for the Gupta family owned Oakbay Investments in a South African political controversy, affecting the company’s relationships with other agency customers. In late February 2016, several internet-based sources were altered to be more favourable to the Guptas. These included activities in Wikipedia, chat rooms, blogs and on news articles related to the Gupta family. It was considered (by the Mail and Guardian) that these alterations were part of “a concerted online counter-propaganda campaign launched on behalf of the Gupta family”.”
“After Business Day reported that Bell Pottinger had taken on Oakbay Investments as a client, Investec stopped using Bell Pottinger’s services in March 2016.”
“In December 2016, it was reported that South African billionaire Johann Rupert had also dropped Bell Pottinger as the PR agency of Richemont. Rupert ended the contract after accusing Bell Pottinger of running a social media campaign against him, to divert attention away from persistent ‘state capture’ allegations leveled at the Gupta family. In February 2017, Rupert alleged that Bell Pottinger had maliciously altered his Wikipedia page.”
And then the page explains how Bell Pottinger were actual behind creating a divide in South Africa using the “White Monopoly Capital” term.
“On 19 March 2017, the South African Sunday Times alleged that Bell Pottinger was behind a social media strategy, using fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users, in an attempt to influence public opinion, as well as targeting media and personalities that were opposed to the Gupta family. “
“The aim of the campaign was to portray the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy involving “white monopoly capital” to deflect accusations and evidence of their client’s involvement in corruption and state capture, and to suggest that ‘white monopoly capital’ is actively blocking transformation in South Africa.”
“The phrase ‘white monopoly capital’ has since been used many times by South African politicians. It is not known who or what the phrase actually refers to and its existence is disputed.“
“The allegations were denied by Victoria Geoghegan, a partner and director at Bell Pottinger. On 12 April 2017, it was reported that Bell Pottinger had dropped the Gupta family as a client, having previously been paid around £100,000 per month.“
“Pottinger’s involvement with the Gupta Family was further highlighted in June 2017 when South African newspapers The Citizen and Sunday Times published several emails, allegedly between South African President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma (and a close Gupta comrade) and Bell Pottinger, pointing to a ‘dirty’ public relations smear battle.“
“They proposed that Hamza Farooqui (MD of WorldSpace in South Africa, and a partner to Gupta associate Salim Essa) would blame the former South African Deputy Finance Minister, Mr Mcebisi Jonas, of dishonesty and corruption.”
“This alleged ‘dirty’ statement was formed by Bell Pottinger employee, Nick Lambert.”
“The statement was earmarked for release soon after Mr Jonas said that he was offered a bribe by a Gupta family member to betray his boss, Pravin Gordhan. Mr Jonas denied this bribe and instead made a public announcement. The ‘dirty’ statement was never released after legal concerns were raised by Bell Pottinger’s Victoria Geoghegan. Nick Lambert, senior advisor at Bell Pottinger, was also said to have prepared “key moments” for a speech by ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine.”
“The speech included a quote “Those who want to disrupt the State of the Nation speech must prepare themselves for a civil war.” Bell Pottinger initially denied any allegations of wrongdoing.”
“The firm’s work for the Gupta Family reportedly went unnoticed by Bell Pottinger founder Lord Bell, who was said to have “left his own firm with key staff members, in apparent disgust over the plan.”
“In June 2017 the South Africa’s Democratic Alliance criticised the country’s tourism board for working with Bell Pottinger “at the same time as the Guptas were paying them to sow division in South Africa” (this contract had been terminated, with the board denying this was for political reasons).”
The Democratic Alliance also complained about Bell Pottinger’s actions to two UK PR bodies, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. DA spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme said Bell Pottinger tried to divide and conquer South Africans by abusing racial tensions in a bid to keep controversial South African President Jacob Zuma and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), in power despite ongoing reports of “State Capture” by the Gupta family.”
“On 4 July, the PRCA acknowledged receipt of a complaint from the Democratic Alliance.“
“On 30 June 2017, Bell Pottinger announced that it was hiring Herbert Smith Freehills to review its dealing with Oakbay Investments in light of the allegations made against Bell Pottinger that it intentionally aggravated racial tensions in South Africa in an effort to deflect attention away from its client.”
“On 6 July 2017 Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson issued an apology and announced that it had “dismissed the lead partner involved [in the Oakbay portfolio] and suspended another partner and two employees so that [they] can determine their precise role in what took place.”
“This came following initial findings from the Herbert Smith Freehills investigation. The dismissed lead partner is believed to be Victoria Geoghegan.“
We’re almost sure the PR firm will have the article edited to remove the controversial allegations but luckily the internet never forgets (and we may have some screen grabs as a reminder).