Crunch time for #BellPottinger over dirty tricks for Guptas' Oakbay

Cape Town - Pressure is piling on UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger to come clean on its business with Gupta-owned company Oakbay, which it ceased doing business with a couple of months ago.

Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson admitted on Thursday that an investigation unearthed evidence of "wrongdoing" relating to the Oakbay account, forcing it to sack a lead partner, believed to be Victoria Geoghegan. Another partner and two employees have been suspended.

Although the inquiry is ongoing, Bell Pottinger intends to publish the findings and take appropriate action.

Under fire in the UK

The revelation comes as Bell Pottinger must face the UK-based Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) regarding allegations by the Democratic Alliance that it stoked racial hatred in South Africa.

DA spokesperson on communication Phumzile van Damme said Bell Pottinger has until July 13 2017 to submit written observations relating to the PRCA’s Professional Charter and Code of Conduct.

The PR firm appears to have violated, among others, clause 4 of the PRCA’s Charter, which states that, “[a] member is required to take all reasonable care that professional duties are conducted without causing offence on the grounds of gender, race, religion, disability or any other form of discrimination or unacceptable reference”, the DA claimed.

"The ball is now in Bell Pottinger’s court to respond to our complaint before the 5-day deadline expires."

'Inappropriate and offensive'

Bell Pottinger helped Oakbay for about a year to defend itself from attacks on its reputation, correcting what it called "misrepresentations" and defending it and its owners from "politically motivated attacks".

It defended Gupta-owned Oakbay for the last time in April when it parted ways with the company. "In all our work for Oakbay we have seen no evidence of wrongdoing," it said in an emailed statement to Fin24 at the time.

But on Thursday Henderson said the company was "dismayed" at evidence presented by Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, which was called in to review the Guptas' account and the work done on it.

"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," he said in a statement.

When it severed ties with Oakbay, the PR firm said allegations suggesting that it stoked racial tension in South Africa were "both insulting and wrong".

Misleading management

Now, three months later, Henderson claimed that 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."

Henderson said as soon as the firm was made aware that they had been misled, it acted immediately by firing and suspending staff.

"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," he said.

We are deeply sorry, Bell Pottinger tells SA

"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."

The independent international law firm's investigation is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

"We intend to publish the findings of that report and take appropriate action," Henderson said.

The controversial Gupta family is accused of having undue influence over President Jacob Zuma. The family is at the centre of allegations of state capture due to their close ties to the president.

South Africa’s top five banks blacklisted the Guptas’ bank accounts and the Office of the Public Protector fingered them in the report, State of Capture.

When Bell Pottinger stepped down as Oakbay's communications adviser, it said it was a victim of a smear campaign, with certain of its partners and staff coming under attack.

Since then, these attacks on, and criticisms of, Bell Pottinger's staff continued, said Henderson, adding that it was clearly the result of "strong and sincere anger".

Bell Pottinger also cited a report in April entitled “Bell Pottinger - PR support for the Gupta family”, as part of a campaign it claimed to discredit the company. The report was released by the South Africa Communist Party on Friday, March 31, according to Bell Pottinger.

"The report was anonymous, gave no sources for its allegations and contained many statements about this firm and our work for Oakbay that were wholly untrue."

It said since the release of the 21-page report, a concerted social media campaign has been waged against Bell Pottinger, "with personally abusive and threatening comments on social media platforms".

Underhand tactics

The report, dated 24 January, claimed that the PR firm employed "a series of underhand tactics" to manipulate public opinion by diverting attention from the Guptas. These included using fake Twitter accounts, bloggers and commentators to stoke racial tensions by fanning the flames of so-called white monopoly capitalism.

The report also implicated Zuma. It alleged that the president requested help to protect the reputation of his son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Gupta family; and to create a media environment which 'would be advantageous' to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his chosen successor.

Damaging SA

The DA said the work that Bell Pottinger has done for the Guptas and Zumas has had a damaging effect on the country, saying they must face the consequences of their actions.

The Save South Africa campaign said Bell Pottinger's apology is insufficient and totally unacceptable.

It is demanding for the full disclosure about the exact nature of its work with Oakbay.

"Bell Pottinger – acting in partnership with its client – sowed racial mistrust, hate and race-baiting, and divided society. Through its work, this British company has further polarized South African society and left deep scars in our social fabric."

Save South Africa also wants to know if the PR firm channeled money to front organisations such as Black First Land First and the Decolonisation Foundation and whether it has done work for South  African government departments and state-owned entities.

Pickets in London

Criticism against Bell Pottinger heightened after Zuma removed Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in a midnight Cabinet reshuffle on March 31.

London protestors had planned to picket outside Bell Pottinger's office over their involvement in South Africa, according to a tweet.

In September 2016, Fin24 reported how a Bell Pottinger employee sent it a confidential Cabinet document to publish as a scoop weeks before it was announced by Minerals Minister Mosebenzi Zwane and which sought to start an inquiry into why the banks shut down the Guptas' bank accounts.

Oakbay Investments has interests in mining, IT, and media (ANN7 and The New Age) among others. The Guptas and Duduzane Zuma own Tegeta, which bought Optimum Coal Mine from Glencore last year.

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