NEWS

Ferial Haffajee: Decoding The Bell Pottinger Findings

We help you get through the legalese to show what they were really trying to say.

04/09/2017 15:15 SAST | Updated 04/09/2017 20:37 SAST
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Comment

The British multinational law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, wrote a muscular report into Bell Pottinger's work for the Gupta family's investment company called Oakbay.

While Bell Pottinger has released the findings of the report, it has not released the full report. However, the findings offer a fascinating mirror into what went down.

We help you get through the legalese to show what they were really trying to say. (We take responsibility for the decoding).

  • Report says: Implement a more formal and and robust engagement review of any new client work... including the ability to monitor on-going matters by way of spot checks. This will allow Bell Pottinger to identify high-risk clients and high risk mandates and ensure that they are monitored and managed more closely.

HuffPost SA decodes: Bell Pottinger was blinded by the estimated R20 million a month retainer the Guptas were willing to pay and did not undertake standard reviews any good public relations company would.

  • Report says: Put in place further training of employees and partners on social media engagement.

HuffPost SA decodes: Bell Pottinger's social media engagement policy and knowledge of how ethical social media engagement works is totally shoddy and non-existent.

  • Report says: Redevelop and re-issue Bell Pottinger's corporate policies in a new employee handbook.

HuffPost SA decodes: The policies, which include ethical practice, are a paper tiger meant to satisfy regulators. Staff did not know or understand what their policies and pursuant responsibilities were.

  • Report says: Develop an ethics committee to separate the consideration of engaging clients from the consideration of wider ethical questions. The committee will also look at how ethics impact upon all relevant stakeholders and develop an ethics training programme for all staff.

HuffPost SA decodes: Pottinger has no ethics.

  • Report says: Engender a culture whereby junior employees at Bell Pottinger feel able to challenge work with which they feel uncomfortable.

HuffPost SA decodes: Junior staff member tried to speak up but was silenced (possibly because of the focus on profits over ethics).

  • Report says: A key part of the economic emancipation campaign was a social media and press campaign, which included one blog and one associated Twitter account. Neither the blog nor the Twitter account appear to have had a large following...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. The BP account team was primarily responsible for devising the strategy behind the economic emancipation campaign and for creating and commissioning content for the social media and press aspects of that campaign.

HuffPost SA decodes: Bell Pottinger were the masterminds and they left the dirty digital work of creating the fake accounts and deploying the Twitter automated robotic army to others likely employed separately by the Gupta family and possibly India-based.

Conclusion

Herbert Smith Freehills LLP ploughed through 45,000 documents and interviewed a significant number of witnesses to arrive at its findings. The investigators interviewed the full team who worked in South Africa, although one member attended a preliminary interview and then declined to attend to a second more detailed interview.

Over time, Bell Pottinger's people on the ground who worked at the Gupta's HQ allowed their propaganda work to overtake their communications work.

The account was divided into two parts. The first was standard communications work like devising media schedules around key events and building relationships with influential journalists and editors, notably the foreign media. The second part was promoting a narrative around the existence of "economic apartheid" and the need for more "economic emancipation" (the "economic emancipation" campaign).

Bell Pottinger's people on the ground who worked at the Gupta's HQ allowed their propaganda work to overtake their communications work.

The law firm found: "In the early months, the majority of BP's work on the Oakbay account was spent in relation to the corporate communications work stream. However, the account team, which had been undertaking the corporate communications work, spent increasing amounts of time on the economic emancipation campaign around September 2016."

While Herbert Smith Freehills LLP says Bell Pottinger did not create the white monopoly capital campaign, it found the company used the term in its work. This campaign, which has fundamentally influenced South Africa's body politic, gained ground around September 2016.

While former Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson has said in his exit statement that his colleagues disappointed him by not keeping him in the loop, the inquiry into the company's practices found he and the senior team could have done more.

"BP's senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race. In such circumstances, BP ought to have exercised extreme care and should have more closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign. This does not appear to have happened."

In addition, the law firm found that the account team on the ground in South Africa misled their senior management. The team in SA was led by Victoria Geoghegan who was promoted by Bell Pottinger for bringing in the Oakbay-Gupta account. She has subsequently been fired.

BP's senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race.

Herbert Smith Freehills LLP found that some of her and her team's briefings to her seniors were "inaccurate and misleading". It concluded that: "there were a series of opportunities for certain members of senior management to discover these matters which were missed."