NEWS

Analysis: How Bell Pottinger Isn't Sorry Anymore

They are busy spinning the web of their story about their activities in South Africa.

03/08/2017 06:03 SAST | Updated 03/08/2017 06:04 SAST
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A group of commuters stand and take pictures of anti-fracking demonstrators, as they sit with their hands super-glued to each other at the offices of Bell Pottinger in central London.

Analysis

It seems British PR firm and Gupta spin-doctors Bell Pottinger are busy spinning the web of their story about their activities in South Africa. And this seems to include backtracking on their apology.

The company is working hard to manage its own reputation, with its CEO James Henderson claiming in an interview claiming the company acted responsibly – but possibly naively at the same time – when handling the Gupta account.

This is a stark contrast to their apology in July, where they admitted the campaign run for the Guptas was "inappropriate and offensive".

"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," Henderson's statement at the time said.

Bell Pottinger's strategy

The firm, which was contracted by the Gupta-owned Oakbay, has been accused of stirring racial tensions in South Africa by propagating the ideology of white monopoly capital to distract from allegations of state capture.

The dossier of emails obtained by amaBhungane and The Daily Maverick between the Guptas, their employees and associates -- now famously known as the Gupta Leaks -- reportedly reveal that Duduzane Zuma (President Jacob Zuma's son) met with Bell Pottinger partner Victoria Geoghegan to devise a massive propaganda campaign about "economic emancipation".

The £100,000 a month strategy was allegedly set up to counter public and media criticism, by using emotive language and phrases relating to economic emancipation – the slogan white monopoly capital is said to have been the resulting rhetoric.

Geoghegan was sacked and three other Bell Pottinger employees suspended when the company conducted an initial investigation. The company has since contracted an independent international law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP3, to audit the Gupta account.

In their apology to South Africa, Bell Pottinger admitted there was a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that they, apparently only then being made aware of it, consider to be "inappropriate and offensive".

"At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done... work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies," the statement said.

Changing the narrative
But now, a month since the apology, the firm seems to be pushing a different narrative.

In an interview with the BBC's Radio 4, Bell Pottinger's CEO James Henderson said the handled the Gupta contract in a responsible way and at worst, the company was naive in their actions.

"At worst, we were very naive in what we got involved with, but there was, at any point, no intention to create the impact that is claimed we created. We went out predominantly with a corporate campaign, trying to handle an issue in a responsible way and I believe that will come out," Henderson said.

"We clearly take huge concern of this which is why we commissioned a report to look into every email and every document that was produced. The proposals I saw on this issue looked corporately responsible. They did not fuel racial tension or have an intention to do so."

He said the company has been called guilty before any "real evidence" has emerged.