Why Bell Pottinger dropped Guptas' Oakbay

Atul Gupta and President Jacob Zuma.  (File photo: GCIS)
Atul Gupta and President Jacob Zuma. (File photo: GCIS)

Cape Town - UK-based public relations agency Bell Pottinger defended the Gupta-owned Oakbay for the last time as it announced on Wednesday that it will no longer be working with the company.

"In all our work for Oakbay we have seen no evidence of wrongdoing," it said in an emailed statement to Fin24.

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.

FULL STATEMENT: Bell Pottinger drops the Guptas

Bell Pottinger said it was forced to step down as the company's communications adviser because it has been the subject of a smear campaign, with certain of its partners and staff coming under attack.

"It is therefore with regret that we have suggested to Oakbay, and have mutually agreed with them, that we will step down from our role as communications advisers with immediate effect."

The company has for the last year been working to help Oakbay defend itself from attacks on its reputation, correcting misrepresentations and defending it and its owners from politically motivated attacks, it said.

"In recent times the tactics of Oakbay’s detractors have changed; Bell Pottinger has been targeted and became the story."

Bell Pottinger cited a report entitled “Bell Pottinger - PR support for the Gupta family”, as part of a campaign it claims to discredit it. 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".

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 President Jacob 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.

The report further revealed that Bell Pottinger's decision to work for the Guptas created internal disruptions leading to the departure of senior staff.

In response to this, Bell Pottinger rejected these claims on Wednesday.

"Bell Pottinger has been happy to deny on the record all the allegations made against it, the firm and its partners and staff hold themselves to the highest professional standards," it said.

"To suggest that we would stoke racial tension in South Africa is both insulting and wrong."

Bell Pottinger said the unfounded and unsourced report is the latest example of the campaign against it.

"Unfortunately, in this regard, they have had some success and we have to accept that this has compromised our ability to be an effective advocate for our client."

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

The pressure against Bell Pottinger heightened after Zuma removed Pravin Gordhan as finance minister on March 30.

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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