Vultures circle Bell Pottinger as SA scandal shatters its reputation

EDINBURGH — Speculation is rife in London public relations circles that some Bell Pottinger partners are looking to exit the scandal-wracked firm. The global public relations company 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 and later 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”). For full details on Bell Pottinger, see: Dummy’s Guide: Bell Pottinger – Gupta London agency, creator of WMC. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulisizwe Sithole

The meltdown at PR firm Bell Pottinger, which has been accused of stirring up racial tensions in South Africa, has led some of its partners to think about spinning off into a new business, reports The Times of London.

The news organisation says John Sunnucks, chairman of its financial practice, is understood to have held talks with Oliver Hemsley, founder of the stockbroker Numis, about funding some kind of buyout.

“Tricky — not least because James Henderson, Bell Pottinger’s under-fire boss, and his fiancée, Heather Kerzner, 48, own 37%. To add spice, she is the ex-wife of South African hotels tycoon Sol 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.

“Sunnucks, 58, says this is “just speculation”. Hemsley, 54, says: “I definitely haven’t got any comment about that, but I think it’s unlikely.”

The Times reports on speculation that Henderson, 52, recently promised angry partners he would resign, then changed his mind. “He says this is untrue: ‘I’m determined to sort this out and then decide what’s best for the business’,” says The Times of Henderson’s response.

Meanwhile, PRWeek reports that the furore over Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa has wider implications for the PR industry.

Most agency chiefs contacted by PRWeek agree that work considered morally dubious (or, at least, work for morally dubious clients) is still undertaken by some PR and public affairs agencies.

“However, they say that it is getting more difficult to keep such activity under wraps in the digital age – and point out that ethical grey areas do still exist.”

Following a long and damaging saga, Bell Pottinger has been ruled in breach of the PRCA code of conduct for its work with South Africa’s Oakbay Investments, highlights PRWeek.

“Some agency bosses insist tough action must be taken against Bell Pottinger when the PRCA releases its full judgment next week, in order to protect the sector’s wider reputation.”

PRWeek says Lansons CEO Tony Langham, a PRCA board member who has been on holiday and so did not attend last week’s board meeting at which Bell Pottinger was discussed, is unequivocal.

“It is vital for the credibility of the British PR industry that Bell Pottinger is dealt with in the harshest way possible by all professional bodies – and important that anyone with integrity distances themselves from the work they undertook in South Africa,” Langham says. The PRCA decision has not yet been released.

PRWeek highlighted other companies that have been in the news for undertaking morally questionable work.

Read also: Evil mastermind Victoria Geoghegan: How does she sleep at night? #GuptaLeaks

“In July, Weber Shandwick withdrew from a public affairs contract with Egypt after six months. That followed a critical feature in The Atlantic that accused Weber of working with “one of Egypt’s top spy services”. Meanwhile, MSLGroup and parent firm Publicis’ work with the Saudi government came in for criticism last year by a UK human rights group.”

Iain Anderson, Cicero Group executive chair and a former chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, is quoted as saying that it is “not sustainable” for agency chiefs to “turn a blind eye” to unethical practices, and calls for “due diligence” of potential clients.

“Things have massively changed. I think in a digital world, the idea that you can not be transparent, that you can not be overt, that you are not on the record, that you can ‘astroturf’ [create fake grassroots campaigns]… that just gets found out, and it gets found out much, much faster.”

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