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Right of reply: Bell Pottinger threatens BizNews over Hitler video story

JOHANNESBURG — UK public relations company Bell Pottinger, which was previously controversially employed by the Guptas, has hit back at BizNews after we published a story last week Thursday that revealed new information and questions about the company’s digital unit ‘Engage’. The story also featured an internal Bell Pottinger video that used a popular Hitler meme to poke fun at CEO James Henderson as well as indicating the pressures that Bell Pottinger employees are under. Sources told BizNews that Bell Pottinger’s digital unit created the video. Meanwhile, insiders also told BizNews that James Thomlinson, a Bell Pottinger MD who heads up the Engage unit, was tapped by Victoria Geoghegan to help carry out and oversee the digital and social media campaign for the Gupta-owned Oakbay in South Africa. BizNews sent a series of questions to Thomlinson via email on Friday, 11 August. Another email was sent to Thomlinson several hours before publication of the story on Thursday 17 August but we still did not receive a response. Subsequently, we’re publishing Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson’s email to us, dated Friday 18 August. And below this post, we’ve published the emailed questions that were sent to Thomlinson. – Gareth van Zyl

Read more: How Bell Pottinger REALLY works: Ugly Hitler video shatters PR myths

Email from James Henderson, Bell Pottinger CEO, Friday 18 August:

Dear Sir

I am writing on behalf of Bell Pottinger and its employees in relation to an article being published on your website entitled “How Bell Pottinger REALLY works: Ugly Hitler video shatters PR myths” which is available here: https://www.biznews.com/leadership/2017/08/17/how-bell-pottinger-hitler-video/ (“the Article”) and following contact from your journalist to James Thomlinson who is the subject of the Article.

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.

We should firstly make it quite clear that we reserve all of our rights in relation to both this and other material potentially being published by you.  Secondly, we immediately draw your attention to the Article given the false and unfounded nature of what is alleged, and the unjustified targeting of current and former Bell Pottinger employees.

  1. The Article makes very serious defamatory claims against James Thomlinson including that he oversaw and ran a digital “propaganda” campaign which you say, amongst other things, involved the creation of fake Twitter accounts and that he personally outsourced “more negative social channels” to another company.  Such claims are strenuously denied.  It is completely unacceptable that you would publish such falsities which specifically target an individual and which have absolutely no bearing on the actual position.   
  2. It is also completely untrue to suggest, as the Article does, that Mr Thomlinson was responsible for the creation of what is referred to as the “Hitler video”.
  3. Not only is the Article littered with serious and inaccurate allegations in relation to Mr Thomlinson, it also specifically targets one of our former employees, Leila Mountford, by seeking to suggest that she too may have been involved in “dark arts campaigns”.  Such a claim is completely unsubstantiated and has no basis in truth whatsoever.  That fact is self-evident from the comments made Ms Mountford’s current boss at The Romans which have been published by you.  It is seriously concerning that your journalist would proceed to publish unfounded claims in the face of such a statement.

You are now on notice of the above and we would ask that you will take the appropriate action and remove the Article from your website.  Please provide you [sic] confirmation that your will do so immediately.

In the meantime, we must reserve all of our rights, and those of our employees, to take the appropriate legal action in respect of the material.

James Henderson

Email sent from BizNews’ Gareth van Zyl to Engage MD James Thomlinson on 11 August:

Subject line: Oakbay/Gupta’s media campaign in SA – Bell Pottinger ENGAGE’s involvement

Hi James,

My name is Gareth van Zyl and I’m a journalist working for BizNews.com. I’m a previous tech journalist at the likes of Fin24.com in South Africa as well. 

I’ve been made aware of your division’s involvement in the Oakbay digital campaign and the nature thereof. I’d like to ask you a number of questions as we are planning on soon publishing a piece on Engage’s involvement in the Oakbay campaign in South Africa. 

I believe you head up the Engage team as MD. Now, I understand that Victoria headed up the Oakbay account but that she turned to you for help when it came to the digital/social expertise for the work she did for the Guptas. I understand that you also outsourced part of the campaign. I, therefore, have a number of questions and would appreciate if you’d take the time to answer them. Alternatively, we can also do a Skype interview, if possible. Here are my questions:

James Thomlinson
James Thomlinson, who has locked his Twitter account ever since the Gupta saga erupted. 

1. Why was your division rebranded to ‘Engage by Bell Pottinger’? I understand that the rebrand came about amid a bid by Bell Pottinger to insulate the practice from any fallout from the Gupta contract?

2. Was the rebrand also a bid to try and hang on to clients who are considering or who have already left Engage/Bell Pottinger amid the work your company did for the Guptas?

2. What was the nature/extent of your digital division’s work for Oakbay? How closely did you work with Victoria and were you the brains behind the digital campaign for Oakbay?

3. I understand that while your digital division handled some of the social media accounts for Oakbay that you also outsourced some work? Are you able to disclose to whom you outsourced this work to and what the nature of that work was? It’s alleged that you outsourced the more negative aspect of the campaign to a third party company?

4. I understand that you also oversaw the work of this third party company? Are you able to 1) confirm this and 2) disclose the name of this company?

5. What do you make of allegations that your company was behind the vitriolic social media campaign in South Africa for the Guptas, which targeted a number of journalists and amplified propaganda around so-called ‘white monopoly capital’? The social media campaign also attacked former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and is being blamed for creating social discord in South Africa.

6. Would your division have also been behind the Google ads for Oakbay which linked to certain fake news websites and even stories on the likes of Fin24, but which provided misleading header links?

7. The Gupta email leaks in South Africa have also revealed that Bell Pottinger tapped the services of an Israeli online reputational management company called Veribo. Have you worked with this company and how involved were they on the Gupta account?

Regards,

Gareth van Zyl

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