Guest Column

For whom the Bell tolls: PR firm’s apology too late, but what now?

2017-07-07 14:25
The Gupta mansion with an armoured vehicle in the bottom right. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/Rapport

The Gupta mansion with an armoured vehicle in the bottom right. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/Rapport

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Pieter-Louis Myburgh

At the risk of plagiarising the work of one of the 21st century’s great wordsmiths, the question that sprung to mind when I read PR firm Bell Pottinger’s apology to South Africans for its involvement with the Gupta business empire was this: Is it too late now to say sorry?

The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.

Firstly, the statement issued on Thursday by Bell Pottinger Chief Executive James Henderson was inadequate because of its tardiness. The statement comes in the wake of a prolonged period during which the firm was made well aware of the wide-spread negative sentiment among South Africans over its work in the country. So yes, it certainly is too late to say sorry.

The tone and content of Henderson’s apology also fell far short. The firm wants us to believe that its top management were “misled” by the team of Bell Pottinger employees who worked on the Oakbay account. These four supposedly rogue staff members, including Victoria Geoghegan, the Bell Pottinger financial and corporate partner that became the poster child for her firm’s dubious involvement with the Guptas, were either dismissed or suspended as soon as Bell Pottinger’s top brass realised that Geoghegan and her colleagues were doing work that went “against the very core of [Bell Pottinger’s] ethical policies..."

I don’t believe for a second that Henderson and his senior partners would have allowed themselves to be kept in the dark with regards to a contract as sensitive and lucrative as the Gupta account. But let’s suppose for a second that they were. If any business outfit’s top leadership is so wholly ignorant of what its troops are getting up to, it certainly raises questions around the culture of monitoring and accountability at the company in question.

Bell Pottinger says it has appointed an independent international law firm to probe its work on the Oakbay account. The law firm’s findings will be made public, according to Bell Pottinger, and it will “take appropriate action” once the verdict is in.

But we have to remember that such privately mandated investigations have their limitations; Bell Pottinger is a client of Herbert Smith Freehills LLP2, the law firm in question, much in the same way that Oakbay and the Guptas were clients of Bell Pottinger. The client is always going to have a say in the mandate and scope of whatever project it is paying a third-party professional firm to execute, whether it be the running of a highly questionable PR campaign, or the subsequent legal soul searching that has to be put in place once said PR campaign blows up in your face.

For this reason the ongoing probes by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) into Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa should be the ones to watch. The PRCA and CIPR were asked by the DA to investigate whether the firm’s conduct in South Africa involved the “ferment[ing] of racial divisions”.

As we’ve seen from an earlier #GuptaLeaks report, it was Geoghegan and her team that suggested to Duduzane Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s ambassador in the Gupta business empire, that phrases such as “economic apartheid” needed to be entered into South Africa’s public discourse. Following Bell Pottinger’s appointment by the Guptas in January 2016, similar phrases, most prominently “white monopoly capital”, started being thrown around by Black First Land First (BLF) and its small but vocal band of supporters.

As we’ve also learnt from the #GuptaLeaks, the BLF’s Andile Mngxitama has also maintained communications with the Guptas, raising questions around how the organisation fit into the roll-out of Bell Pottinger’s strategies.

The UK does have laws that prohibit UK-based companies to become involved in activities that incite racial tension in foreign countries. If the CIPR and PRCA conclude that Bell Pottinger was guilty of doing that in South Africa, one would hope that a high-level government probe by the relevant UK authorities follows on the back of those of the two PR industry bodies.

There is also the issue of the more than £100 000 a month (that’s about R2.3m) that Bell Pottinger received during its year-long association with the Guptas. If the firm is really sincere in its apology to South Africa, would it pay back the money it earned from this dodgy contract? Methinks not.

Bell Pottinger’s embarrassing exit from South Africa by means of its termination of the Oakbay account should not be viewed in isolation. The PR firm is joining a growing band of professional firms and banks that have cut their ties with the family. Like Bell Pottinger, auditing firm and de facto wedding planner KPMG has been left red-faced over its association with the Guptas.

It remains to be seen whether the #GuptaLeaks, or other future revelations, will also expose the big banks as having been complicit in the Guptas’ financial crimes. But what is certain is that the family is now as isolated as they’ve ever been, at least as far as the corporate world is concerned.

The Bell has tolled for Geoghegan and her cohorts. Let’s hope its reverberations are unbearably and alarmingly loud within the halls of 5 Saxonwold Drive.

  • Pieter-Louis Myburgh is an investigative journalist at News24 and the author of The Republic of Gupta: A Story of State Capture.

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Read more on:    bell pottinger  |  guptas  |  saxonwold

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