Dummy’s guide: Bell Pottinger – Gupta London agency, creator of WMC

Dummy’s guide to Bell Pottinger: Executive summary

London-headquartered global public relations company Bell Pottinger has been in the news in South Africa as a result of the work it did following its appointment by the Gupta family in March 2016 on a monthly retainer of £100 000. The firm resigned the account in April 2017 and in July issued a “full, unequivocal, absolute” apology for the role it had played in destabilising South Africa.

Its mandate was to create a campaign to divert public attention from the effective capture of the South African state by the Gupta family. It devised a strategy based on stirring up racial friction through attacking whites, and particularly the business sector (“White Monopoly Capital”), as the reason for South Africa’s economic stagnation and consequent growth in unemployment which at an effective 36% is amongst the highest in the world.

Two British Polluters. More of Zapiro’s magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Evidence linking Bell Pottinger to race-baiting, manipulation and the application of dark arts on social media was contained in a cache of 200 000 emails leaked from Gupta company servers – described as #GuptaLeaks. These emails prove the connection between the Gupta family and its corruption of SA President Jacob Zuma and many of his cabinet members.

There is considerable evidence in South Africa that the Guptas are the puppeteers behind the corrupted President Zuma. On May 31 Zuma fired respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan and replaced him with a close Gupta associate Malusi Gigaba. Gordhan was in engaged in a legal battle with the Guptas whom he says have plundered R100bn from South African state resources.

After the May 31 cabinet reshuffle, the Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe referred to the Gupta influence thus: “We were given a list (of the new cabinet) that was complete…I felt like this list has been developed somewhere else and it’s given to us to legitimise it.”

Since the emergence of #GuptaLeaks, Zuma has stopped bothering to cover the tracks of his close connection to the crony capitalist immigrants from India. For instance on July 28, immediately after the ANC leadership met for a three-day Lekgotla, Zuma’s 17-car cavalcade headed straight from the event to the Gupta compound in Saxonwold Johannesburg, presumably for a debriefing.

Billionaire Johann Rupert, founder and chairman of Cie. Financiere Richemont SA. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

There is also evidence in the #GuptaLeaks emails that Bell Pottinger was paid to develop and execute a smear campaign against a number of leading figures in South Africa, including its most powerful businessman Johann Rupert. Ironically, before the agency took on the Guptas, luxury goods group Richemont, which Rupert chairs and effectively controls, was a client of Bell Pottinger.

BizNews, an independent news organisation, has also been targeted by Bell Pottinger, which commissioned a sinister campaign with tinges of violence to tarnish the BizNews reputation and bring down the business and its owner, Alec Hogg. This was one of the agency’s first initiatives when, in March 2016, it instructed London lawyers to “go for the kill” against Biznews to make an example for others on the site’s critical reporting.

As a result of these and other actions, Bell Pottinger is the subject of a disciplinary hearing by PRCA, the global public relations body. Schillings’s role is being investigated by the UK Solicitors Regulation Authority. SA’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, organised a picket outside the Bell Pottinger offices attended by 70 concerned citizens. Subsequent to this action, the BBC has carried lengthy pieces on the subject on television and radio.

Bell Pottinger’s reaction has been to dismiss the concerns as a storm in a teacup. Its CEO James Henderson has stepped away from taking responsibility for the role of his employees in South Africa and has failed to acknowledge that his company has generated significant revenue from the proceeds of corruption.

Henderson claims he was ‘misled’ about the nature of Bell Pottinger’s work with the Gupta family. However, as the Financial Times noted recently: “Bell Pottinger has advised on burnishing the standing of regimes from Belarus to Bahrain”.

So who is Bell Pottinger and what has it done to anger an entire nation? Here’s a briefing if you are new to the Bell Pottinger scandal.

Bell Pottinger: Corporate profile

In an overview for UK industry mouthpiece PRWeek in November 2016, Bell Pottinger highlighted the following:

Ownership: Independent
Offices: 8
Revenue: Global $53.2m (£34.8m), UK £27.9m
Headcount: Global 266, UK 201

Tim Bell stepped away from the company earlier this year, citing the Bell Pottinger account with the Gupta empire among his reasons. The FT reports Lord Bell saying current Bell Pottinger management “was aware of the risks from the beginning of representing the business family accused of ‘capturing’ the government of President Jacob Zuma”.

Lord Bell claims Henderson has made a scapegoat of the key person on the Gupta account, Victoria Geoghegan, by firing her. Geoghegan is the daughter of former BAE executive Christopher who introduced the Guptas (who are also in the arms trade) to the agency. Lord Bell says: “The truth of it is self-evident. I told them not to accept the client in the first place. They ignored that”.

The Bell Pottinger founder has set up a rival PR practice called Sans Frontieres. He “admits” he flew to South Africa in 2016 to meet with the Gupta family ahead of Bell Pottinger being awarded a £100 000-a-month contract.

CEO Henderson claims he was “aware of the brief” with the Gupta family but “not aware of the way it was executed”, says the FT.

Bell is no stranger to the work of dirty propaganda. As the UK’s Independent reminded its readers recently: In 2011, an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published in The Independent showed senior executives at the company boasting, amongst many other things, about how they could manipulate Google search results to “drown” out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour.

Meanwhile, in a special report in PRWeek on Bell Pottinger, Henderson reveals that he pushed his staff to grow profits in 2016. “After investing in the business, our challenge [in 2016] was to focus on margins. If you look at the figures since the management buyout in 2012, our quarterly revenues have increased from £7m to £9m,” Henderson explains.

BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.
BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger client list: From bankers to the Royal Family

Henderson says in PRWeek: “We’ve always been well known for political advice and capital markets work but we’re now being recognised for our consumer-facing campaigns.”

Bell Pottinger says it has worked with the following clients, though a caveat here – many Bell Pottinger clients contacted recently by Biznews.com claim that they no longer work with the agency and haven’t for some time and one claimed it could find no trace of ever having Bell Pottinger on its payroll.

  • Account wins in Asia in 2016 included the Singapore government, public transport provider SMRT and one of the world’s largest commodity traders, Noble Group.
  • In the Middle East, Aldar Properties, Abu Dhabi’s largest real estate company and the Saudi Stock Exchange were added to the client list.
  • Amazon and Hitachi Capital were “notable account wins in the UK”.
  • Bell Pottinger “added to its celebrity client roster with big names including supermodel Naomi Campbell and the royal family”. It’s not clear whether Bell Pottinger is working for anyone other than Fergie, The Duchess of York, for whom Henderson is cited as her official spokesperson.
  • The firm helped Cyprus-born entrepreneur and investor Touker Suleyman “secure a coveted spot on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den programme”.
  • Bell Pottinger has advised Aviva, Emirates National Oil Company, Johnson Press and HSBC.
  • “On the geopolitical side, Bell Pottinger worked on the Nigerian elections and carried out lobbying work in the UK on behalf of Russian energy company Gazprom”.
  • “Having secured a lucrative six-figure contract from the South African Tourism Board, it began work on this at the start of 2016. So far this year, the agency has staged stunts at key train stations around central London to promote South Africa as a holiday destination,” said Henderson. He made no mention of his work for the Gupta family in his appraisal of the business’s 2016 performance in South Africa.
  • Bell Pottinger, says PRMoment.com, has faced criticism for working for regimes including Egypt and Bahrain during the Arab Spring.
  • Recently South Africa’s Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane indicated he had written to Bell Pottinger clients to ask them to axe the dirty PR firm. Companies on his correspondence list included: Virgin Media, Centrica, Waitrose and RSA Group. Virgin Media and Centrica have said that they have already cut ties with Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger in South Africa

Working for the Guptas: The full extent of Bell Pottinger’s work for the Gupta family is not yet clear, but it includes devising and executing the “White Monopoly Capital” campaign through enlisting the support of a number of naïve/malleable South African journalists; and through a highly destructive social media campaign.

Bell Pottinger says it terminated its contract with Gupta entity Oakbay in April 2017 after working for it for about a year starting in March 2016.

Taking action against Bell Pottinger: The Democratic Alliance has complained about Bell Pottinger’s activities in South Africa to UK industry bodies, for example the Public Relations Communications Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. The Helen Suzman Foundation, Section27 and Save SA have expressed their willingness to assist in any probe into Bell Pottinger’s conduct, reports Eyewitness News.

UK Professional Practices hearing: Francis Ingham MPRCA, Director General, PRCA, said his organisation’s Professional Practices Committee will hold a hearing on this case on Friday 18 August, 2017.

Axed by SA businesses: South African investment bank Investec and Richemont, the luxury company held by Johann Rupert, fired the agency as did SA Tourism.

SA PR specialist: Quoted in the FT, South African public relations specialist Chris Vick says it is “really disingenuous” of Henderson to claim that he did not know how the Gupta campaign was executed. “ There is no way people at the top of Bell Pottinger didn’t know what was going on. This was a massive disinformation campaign, not just a couple of fake Twitter accounts.”

Who’s who in the Bell Pottinger scandal: Profiles 

Tim Bell: ‘Anyone is entitled to put their opinion across’

Lord Bell has distanced himself from Bell Pottinger dirty work in South Africa, which is strange when you consider that he hasn’t been terribly fussy in the past about who writes cheques for his expertise. The Financial Times has described Lord Bell as the UK’s “most controversial PR man”.

“Once a link between Margaret Thatcher and the media, he offered advice in support of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Alexander Luka­shenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus. Today Bell Pottinger has nearly 500 clients,” said the FT in 2014.

“High-profile figures it has represented recently include the journalist Rebekah Brooks (accused of phone-hacking) and entertainer Rolf Harris (sex offences).”

Has Bell ever said no to a prospective client? “I said no to Mugabe, I said no to the Labour party, I said no to six of the Russians that were being sanctioned [by the EU]. I only take on clients I think I can do a job for,” he was reported as saying.

Although Bell Pottinger has financial services clients – including Investec at that time – Bell described the banking community as “all complete criminals…the whole bloody lot”. He said the media has an “addiction to apologies” and that he never advises his clients to apologise.

Although Bell claims he left Bell Pottinger over the relationship with the Guptas, his colleague Victoria Geoghegan wrote in an email to Duduzane Zuma: “Lord Bell will be available for strategic counsel as and when required. We will also have in reserve other divisions (digital, crisis communications) should we need a wider skillset.” The email was revealed in the #GuptaLeaks.

Tim Bell
Bell Pottinger principals: Tim Bell, James Henderson

James Henderson: “I enjoy coming up with ideas”

PRMoment.com describes James Henderson as “the epitome of calm, cool and collected”. He became group CEO of Bell Pottinger when it departed company from Chime Communications following an MBO led by Lord Bell.

Although Henderson has distanced himself from the Gupta pitch, previously he has emphasised that winning new business is his favourite part of the day. “I love helping people communicate, solve issues and achieve objectives. I enjoy coming up with ideas and then putting them into practice and seeing them work,” he says on PRMoment.com.

Discussing how he got started in PR, Henderson describes that it was through luck, rather than judgment. He read law at university and then went into the city to work at a stockbrokers as a graduate trainee. His life may have been very different if he had not been made redundant in the crash of 1987, the same day as the great storm.

He says he then “fell” into PR, when someone who knew he was looking for a job helped him get a position at the export association, British Invisibles, promoting the city abroad. Here Henderson worked as a junior administrative assistant, a role that involved mainly PR work: “Whilst I was there I decided I wanted to go into PR. But not immediately.”

Henderson worked for College Hill before starting his own financial PR agency, Pelham Public Relations. After growing the business he approached Bell Pottinger because he believed it could help scale his company. Henderson claims that his financial division became the main profit driver of the business.

Heather Kerzner
Tying the knot: In business and in love. Heather Kerzner, ex-wife of controversial South African businessman Sol Kerzner, has invested in Bell Pottinger. She is set to wed Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson soon. Here the happy couple are photographed at a social event covered by glossy magazine Tatler. 

Heather Kerzner: Living the good life

Heather Kerzner has invested in Bell Pottinger, and owns about 15% of the company. Times Live reports that Kerzner and Henderson jointly own 37% of the agency.

Henderson proposed to Heather Kerzner, ex-wife to controversial South African hotels billionaire Sol Kerzner, in February at a Mayfair restaurant, the British media reports.

The couple, both around 50 years old, have “six children between them”. They have been an item for some time judging by the many pictures of them together at social functions in the UK.

The UK media describes Henderson as having gone through a messy divorce last year. Kerzner and Henderson plan to marry before the end of this year.

Victoria Geoghegan
Scapegoat or evil mastermind? Victoria Geoghegan, fired MD of Financial & Corporate at Bell Pottinger

Victoria Geogheghan: WMC director

Although Bell Pottinger has a division dedicated to political propaganda, it chose Victoria Geoghegan – part of Henderson’s revenue-generating finance team for more than a decade – to lead activities in South Africa.

Henderson was so delighted with her Gupta work that he promoted her as recently as December to managing director of the agency’s financial and corporate division.

Geoghegan, in her mid-30s and soon to give birth to her first child, was promoted after Johann Rupert, for whom Bell Pottinger worked for almost two decades, revealed he was the victim of a Bell Pottinger-inspired smear campaign.

Rupert told the Remgro annual meeting that Richemont, the luxury brands business controlled by the Rupert family, had until late last year contracted Bell Pottinger to work on its financial relationships. The contract had lasted 15 to 18 years, Rupert estimated.

A media outlet quotes Rupert: “And whilst they were still in the employment of Richemont they started working for the Guptas. The very same person…Their total task was to deflect attention [from state capture allegations involving the Guptas]. Guess who they took as a target? A client of theirs…Me!”

Bell Pottinger has described Geoghegan as a specialist in “creative, innovative tactics for modern communications campaigns”. To South Africans, she represents the face of evil. Her picture has appeared with devil’s horns on it in street protests.

Controversial arms deal businessman Fana Hlongwane, who was advisor to former defence minister Joe Modise, reportedly introduced Victoria’s father Christopher, a former head of a global defence company BAE Systems, to members of the Gupta family. Christopher in turn opened doors for Bell Pottinger.

Making the announcement about Geoghegan’s promotion in PRWeek that she would take up the role from January, Bell Pottinger said her “close client relationships, professional handling of complex issues, and strong leadership skills” make her the right person for a leadership job at their firm.

What the #GuptaLeaks reveal about Victoria Geoghegan

Independent investigative journalists at amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick’s Scorpio have been trawling through the #GuptaLeaks emails. Here are some of the facts they have uncovered about about Victoria Geoghegan :

  • Victoria Geoghegan took instructions from President Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma.This was to market a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it”. In so doing, say amaBhungane and Scorpio, the firm directly undermined the ANC’s capacity to communicate its own policies and programmes to South Africans and hijacked the ruling party’s message, seemingly to benefit the image of the Gupta family.
  • Victoria Geoghegan invoiced a company linked to the Gupta family for the meeting with Duduzane Zuma. The investigative team says the Bell Pottinger partner invoiced the Marketing Quotient, a Dubai-based company part-owned by Gupta family lieutenant, Salim Essa, a “project fee” of £100,000 (About R2.3-million according to exchange rates in January 2016) for a consultation with Duduzane Zuma.
  • Bell Pottinger was paid more than R5m (about £350,000) for one weekend of work to help ANC and MK veterans build the anti-white campaignThe #GuptaLeaks reveal that the Zupta account has been so lucrative for Bell Pottinger that it sent an invoice for just under £350 000 (about R5,5m), for a four-day trip that included a suggested speech for Collen Maine of the ANC Youth League and a statement for the MK Veterans Association.
  • Radio, social media and slogans were identified as channels for Zupta – the moniker for the Zuma-Gupta relationship – to capture grassroots support.
  • Global media strategy. Bell Pottinger planned to use media contacts in South Africa and in the international media to build a campaign based on repetition and emphasising economic emancipation.
  • Playing the apartheid card is part of the plan. Victoria Geoghegan told Zuma that Bell Pottinger would “utilise compelling research, case studies and data which illustrate the apartheid that still exists, and the need for truly inclusive growth. Bell Pottinger will analyse the data (for example: power generation, ports) and create fact sheets and easily understood collateral for wider dissemination”.

According to LinkedIn, Victoria Geoghegan studied business subjects at the University of Manchester. Her friends and endorsers include other communications specialists as well as senior executives at companies including Investec, Investis, Etihad Airways, Amazon UK and FTI Consulting.

The other Bell Pottinger people working on the #Zupta account include:

“Jonathan Lehrle, Nick Lambert, Darren Murphy (Tony Blair’s political adviser), and supported by a much wider team.”

What Bell Pottinger says about its South African activities

James Henderson issued the following statement in early July:

“Three months ago, Bell Pottinger announced that it had decided to cease work for Oakbay Capital. We had worked for them for a year, following a competitive bid process.

When we terminated our work with Oakbay, we said we were doing so because of increasingly strong social media attacks on our staff and our business from South Africa, and that we regarded the criticisms of what our team had done as unfair.

These attacks on, and criticisms of, our staff continued and were clearly the result of strong and sincere anger. Most seriously, it was said that we had supported or aided campaigns to stir up racial division in South Africa.

“Therefore, we called in the leading independent international law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP3, to review the account and the work done on it. That investigation is still continuing and will be completed in the next few weeks. We intend to publish the findings of that report and take appropriate action.

“However, we have already been shown interim evidence which has dismayed us. Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep concern.

“There has been a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive. At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done. For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger.

“Though the inquiry is ongoing, we have dismissed the lead partner involved and suspended another partner and two employees so that we can determine their precise role in what took place. As soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately.

“At Bell Pottinger – a proudly diverse and international team – we have good, decent people who will be as angered by what has been discovered as we are.

“We wish to issue a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened.”

What analysts, commentators say about Bell Pottinger: Snapshots

South Africa’s former minister of finance Trevor Manuel said in an article published on the Daily Maverick website:

Trevor Manuel, former South African Finance Minister and Chairman of the Development Committee. Photographer: Charles Crowell/Bloomberg News.

“I stand by what I said at the Nelson Mandela Foundation: the term ‘White Monopoly Capital’ was conjured up by Bell Pottinger on behalf of the Guptas, and filtered into the political discourse to serve their agenda. Since then I have become aware of the specificity of the facts…the term was developed by Bell Pottinger’s Victoria Geoghegan, who in an email to Duduzane Zuma styled ‘White Monopoly Capital’ as a narrative and filtered it into the discourse via Collen Maine, Andile Mngxitama and Mzwanele ManyiThe idea of ‘White Monopoly Capital’ (WMC) is a ruse to draw attention away from our pressing policy priorities. It is for this reason that I asked what the alternative is…This is because WMC is not part of the lexicon of terms used in ANC policy. It was conjured up as a red herring to obscure the misdeeds of the Guptas and those who benefit from their patronage network.”

South Africa’s former minister of finance Pravin Gordhan said in an interview with the Sunday Times:

Pravin Gordhan, South Africa’s finance minister. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

“It (Bell Pottinger’s apology) uses ‘white monopoly capital’ as a narrative to cover a vast array of nefarious activities at the behest of‚ and in collaboration with‚ the ‘Gupta syndicate’ . . . The minor admissions made vindicate what we’ve been saying for almost two years — that the attacks on institutions such as the national treasury‚ and on individuals and their families was designed to malign them and create a distraction from the activities of the ‘syndicate’.”

Gordhan added that “Bell Pottinger stood accused of collaborating in a systematic plan to capture the South African state as shown by both the studies by the academics and stated in the report by the South African Council of Churches. They went beyond image management or whatever they thought they were doing. You don’t just cook up things or help to create fake twitter accounts and start labelling people. If you are just a PR agency‚ you don’t get involved in that‚” he told the Sunday Times.

African National Congress (ANC) deputy president and South African presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa has accused Bell Pottinger of sowing divisions in the country:

SA deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Some of us were so gullible, so believing and had so much faith in stories that were crafted in London brought here to confuse us. It is a shame on us,” said Ramaphosa at the South African Communist Party (SACP)’s elective conference in Boksburg last month.

“Ramaphosa says everyone must be concerned that a foreign public relations company was able to effectively poison the political discourse of the country to advance what he calls their own narrow interests. It says much about our lack of political cohesion and ideological clarity that Bell Pottinger was able to manipulate some of our own political concepts to fuel confusion and division amongst us,” reports Eyewitness News.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters joined the long list of political and civil organisations in rejecting the apology from former Gupta public relations firm Bell Pottinger, reports News24:

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s EFF. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

“The EFF rejects the Bell Pottinger apology and notes it as insincere as it makes no means to address the damage done…This apology is not only a mockery to a genuine struggle of emancipation but it also undermines the damage destroying reputations has done to families and the entire country”.

The EFF called on the National Prosecuting Authority to “take decisive legal action against Bell Pottinger.

“The legal action must be nothing short of subsequently banning Bell Pottinger from the country. The banning of Bell Pottinger will send a strong message to all who undermine the gift of democracy and free speech which came at the cost of life itself”.

The party also called for the Gupta family to leave SA. “Not only have they looted our coffers, they have done so whilst using a propaganda campaign relying on unethical means. They have rendered our public discourse toxic with fake news. They do not deserve to be in our midst; they must pack up and go back wherever it is they came from,” said the EFF, according to News24.

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