Bell Pottinger not ‘off the hook’ in South Africa after fanning racial tensions

PR firm’s disgrace seen as warning to other unethical businesses

PR company Bell Pottinger is alleged to have stirred up racial tensions in South Africa while working for the influential Gupta family. Co-founder Lord Tim Bell defended his position on current affairs programme, Newsnight. Video: BBC


The recent expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the UK’s PR industry association does not go far enough for many South Africans who feel aggrieved by the racially divisive work the firm undertook in a country still recovering from apartheid.

This week the UK’s Public Relations and Communications (PRCA) imposed its harshest penalty possible on the public relations firm for campaigns it orchestrated for Oakbay Capital, a South African company owned by the brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta.

The PRCA banned Bell Pottinger for a minimum of five years primarily for fanning racial tensions in a campaign it led around “economic apartheid,” which crafted a narrative peddled in South Africa that appeared to pit blacks against whites.

The campaign also portrayed the Guptas as part of the struggle to defeat “white monopoly capital” - white-owned multi-national businesses - which are holding the economic emancipation of black South Africans back by having an unfair monopoly in the marketplace.

In early 2016, the Gupta brothers came under the spotlight in South Africa after a senior government minister accused them of offering ministerial posts and cash bribes in return for acting in their interests once they assumed the higher office in question.

After former deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, went public with his accusations, bad press relating to the Guptas and their relationship with South Africa President Jacob Zuma and his son Dudzane started to pile up.

In the months that followed, Oakbay apparently hired Bell Pottinger to manage the media fallout from the accusations, and public’s increasingly negative perception of how the Gupta brothers conduct their business dealings.

In a statement released by the PR regulator on Monday evening, its director general Francis Ingha said Bell Pottinger had brought the whole PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and consequently it had received the harshest possible sanction.

“This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communication,” he said.

The ruling is a response to a complaint laid against Bell Pottinger by South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), in which it accused the firm of exploiting racial tensions on behalf of the Guptas and Duduzane Zuma, who works closely with the family.

The DA laid the complaint with PRCA in June after a massive trove of emails received and sent from Gutpa businesses were leaked earlier in the year that partially revealed the type of campaign that Bell Pottinger was trying to shape for Oakbay.

“It will take our country years to rebuild our severely fragile race relations, which Bell Pottinger, the Guptas and the Zumas sought to exploit for their own financial gains,” the DA said in a statement on Tuesday.

“This ruling is by no means an indication that Bell Pottinger is off the hook just yet. Bell Pottinger must take responsibility for their actions and disclose all information regarding their Oakbay Capital account and reinvest all monies from their Oakbay account back into South Africa. The DA is exploring further steps that can be taken to force the full disclosure.”

South African civil society group OUTA (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse) said the case should serve as a warning to other unethical businesses.

“The managers need to know that when they impact on a national strategy, such as they did in South Africa, they need to take the blame for that and suffer the consequences,” OUTA’s Wayne Duvenage has said.

“The consequences have been big for them; they’ve lost clients and have been banned. We’ve been able to do this as a society and as political parties without having to spend a cent in a court,” he added.

However, the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa’s Kavitha Kalicheran added that the agency still hadn’t taken responsibility and accountability for its actions. “That part is missing and I think for the majority of South Africans and the international arena, people want information as to the disclosure of what went down on the Oakbay account,” she concluded.

Since being banned Bell Pottinger has said that while it disputes the basis of the ruling handed down, it will learn lessons from what happened. However, whether the company can stay in business long enough to repair the damage done to its reputation remains to be seen.

So far the company’s CEO, James Henderson, has resigned and the four-person team working on the Oakbay account has been sacked. In addition, many clients are reportedly cut their ties with the firm.

Bell Pottinger co-founder, Lord Tim Bell, told South Africa’s Talk Radio 702’s Money Show on Monday evening that the whole board should resign over the scandal. He later told the BBC the company would unlikely survive.