Law firm releases finding on Bell Pottinger's SA campaign

Cape Town - The law firm embattled public relations agency Bell Pottinger retained to investigate its work for Oakbay and the Gupta family has concluded that the company’s South African campaign was “potentially racially divisive” and breached ethical principles.

The findings of a review by international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills were published on Monday afternoon, the same day that Bell Pottinger head James Henderson stepped down.

The two-page document states that Bell Pottinger’s South African campaign included material meant to divide South Africans.

“Certain material that we have seen that was created for the campaign was negative or targeted towards wealthy white South African individuals or corporates and/or was potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive and was created in breach of relevant ethical principles.”

Herbert Smith Freehills found that the PR firm did not, however, invent the term “white monopoly capital”.

“Whilst that phrase was, on occasion, used by the BP account team as part of the economic emancipation campaign we have seen no evidence to suggest that the term was one that BP invented.”

The law firm found that the PR campaign also breached ethical principles in other aspects of its campaign, but did not include details.

"We have seen evidence that the BP account team used other tactics in relation to the economic emancipation campaign which arguably breached the relevant ethical principles, including taking steps which might mislead or undermine journalists who were asking questions in relation to the campaign.”

It found that Bell Pottinger senior staff should have “exercised extreme care” regarding  the content of the Oakbay campaign.

“While we do not consider that it was a breach of relevant ethical principles to agree to undertake the economic emancipation campaign mandate per se, members of BP's senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race.”

Bell Pottinger was not behind the massive social media campaign to drive the narrative of white monopoly capital, found Herbert Smith Freehills.

“We have not seen any evidence to suggest that, as has been alleged, the BP account team used or instructed others to use so-called Twitterbots in the promotion of the economic emancipation campaign.”

Shortly before the review was released on Monday, Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson officially announced his resignation in a short statement.

Henderson said he felt “deeply let down” by colleagues who misled him about the content of the OakBay account.

He said he was leaving Bell Pottinger so that the business could “move forward in the best interests of its clients and staff”.

Henderson did not name the colleagues who he claims misled him, but his statement likely refers to four employees dismissed in July.

Bell Pottinger fired partner Victoria Geoghegan and suspended three more staff members after sustained pressure by South African civic society into its relationships with the Guptas.

In its review, Herbert Smith Freehills found that there were “certain instances where members of senior management were provided with information or confirmations by the account team in relation to the work being done which were inaccurate and misleading.”

However, it also found the senior executives did not monitor the account closely enough.

The two-page findings leave a number of questions unanswered, including questions about Bell Pottinger's work for the ANC Youth League and the MK Veterans Association as revealed in the #GuptaLeaks emails.

Bell Pottinger, for its part, stated that it would put in place new measures to ensure that in future its work corresponded to the “highest ethical and industry standards".

The Democratic Alliance lodged a complaint against Bell Pottinger with the British-based Public and Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for allegedly stoking racial hatred in South Africa. The DA’s complaint was upheld, but the company appealed the PRCA’s decision. The PR body is set to announce its final ruling on the matter on Tuesday.

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