Pro-Zupta propaganda war: How Bell Pottinger roped in Israeli tech firm

Staff writer

JOHANNESBURG — Another skeleton has rolled out the Zupta cupboard.

The Daily Maverick on Tuesday revealed that an Israeli-based, online reputation management company called Veribo had been hired by UK PR firm Bell Pottinger to assist with their (now former) Gupta clients.

Veribo’s CEO, Ran Blayer, confirmed to Daily Maverick that his company had done work in connection with the Guptas but that they terminated their work earlier this year.

Blayer told the publication that his company regrets ever doing work for the Guptas after his firm read more about the Guptas and what has been “going on in South Africa”.

Blayer further denied that his firm helped to create the infamous Zupta bots on Twitter who regurgitated tweets that defended the Guptas and attacked journalists.

Instead, he said his company uploads content and uses publishing tools such as online ads to “share positive information”.

“This over time helps improve positive search engine results which is our key goal for any customer,” Blayer said.

Pro-Oakbay ads

Pro-Oakbay ads have previously routinely found their way onto platforms such as Twitter. The ads would typically provide links to positive information about the embattled Guptas and their businesses in South Africa.

Amid former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s court battle with the Guptas over the cancellation of their bank accounts in South Africa, several anti-Gordhan ads also made their way onto the likes of Google and Twitter earlier this year.

Pravin Gordhan, former South African finance minister, looks on during a news conference in Pretoria on March 31, 2017. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

It’s unclear if Veribo’s company was involved with these pro-Oakbay and pro-Gupta Google ads that sprung up across the internet earlier this year and last year.

But Veribo is a rather interesting company as its website openly describes how it assists clients by essentially pushing down negative search results on Google and raising positive ones.

And with Bell Pottinger increasingly coming under the spotlight and with a probe being undertaken by the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association, it looks like Veribo may have some interesting information to reveal.

Why Veribo is only revealing this information now about its partnership with Bell Pottinger and the Guptas will spark lots of speculation.

But as we’ve done with many other companies caught in the Gupta web, we’re going to shine a spotlight on Veribo by publishing the below profile on the company. This information is sourced from Veribo’s website and, as Pravin Gordhan famously said, we as South Africans should start “joining the dots”.

Who is Veribo?

Veribo has headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel while the company also has an office in London. (Bell Pottinger, conveniently, also has its headquarters in London.)

In 2014, Veribo also opened up an office in Cape Town.

At the time that Veribo expanded into Cape Town, the company’s CEO, Mr Blayer, said that “there is an undeniable hunger in South Africa for more technology in the Online Reputation Management realm.”

However, it’s not clear if Veribo’s Cape Town operation is still ongoing as there is no Cape Town contact number on the current Veribo website.

Veribo, in many ways, is also not shy in disclosing its business practices on its website. The company may have ultimately shunned the Guptas but it’s clear to see why the controversial family and Bell Pottinger would have been attracted to Veribo’s services as outlined below…

All about Veribo’s services

On its ‘Services’ page, Veribo describes how it adopts a “360° Approach” by building “quality sites that draw in visitors”, promoting “positive articles about you or your company on third-party websites”, managing Wikipedia entries, and even improving how you appear in Google’s Autocomplete.

On this point, in particular, Veribo says the following on its website:

“The first impression of your online image starts when someone enters your name in the search box of a search engine. The words that are automatically provided when typing in a search query can be controversial or libelous.”

In terms of Veribo’s online reputation management services for companies and individuals, it further advertises the following on its website:

“We create and promote positive results so that people who search your name will see the right information about you.

“We maximise your control over the first search results so that unwanted results don’t show up in the front pages.

“We push down negative results and raise positive ones.

Veribo’s website further goes on to describe how they tackle their work.

The company says, under its FAQ section, that it works with clients on an “on-going retainer basis” and that “projects can range from a couple of months to years depending on the popularity and source of the unwanted results”.

After reviewing your specific ORM needs, the company will be able to give a reasonable time frame and discuss this with you.

“The challenge is to create content and websites that will outrank existing content, and blend-in naturally in your search results’ page,” says Veribo’s site.

In its FAQ section, the company also explains a little as to how it pushes down negative results.

“The best way to push down negative results is by promoting positive or neutral ones. When we start your project, we’ll choose together the type of results you prefer. Then we’ll create new, relevant, high-quality content – and use our special tools and methodologies to promote it along with existing content you already like. Your personal reputation analyst will help you choose the image you want to portray and then build it for you.”

Veribo’s website gets more interesting as one dives further into it with two case studies that it presents.

With one case study in particular, the company highlights how it went about tackling the online reputation of a “highly successful CEO in a multinational investment bank” who, during his tenure, was “involved in a high profile court case in which he was called in as a witness”.

Veribo said that despite the fact that the court case occurred nearly six years ago, two news articles about it still appear in the search results for this person’s name and were the first thing people saw when looking him up online.”

After implementing its strategy, the outcome of Veribo’s work was that the articles in question fell further down the Google rankings.

“On the first page of Google, all of the search results are either positive or neutral. The client now has platforms for discussing topics close to his heart: the philanthropic causes he donates his time and money to and the hobbies he loves. The news articles about the court case have been pushed back in the search results.”

While Veribo has tried to distance itself from Bell Pottinger’s Gupta work, there are still lots of unanswered questions around how far they went for the controversial Indian immigrant family.

What is clear is that Veribo promises a lot on their website and they would have been sought after by the Guptas whose reputation (online and offline) has, rightfully, been torn to shreds.

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