22/08/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 22/08/2017 11:55 SAST

Why An Industry Body Hearing Is Ill-Equipped To Hold Bell Pottinger To Account

UK PR company Bell Pottinger faces a disciplinary hearing over its work for Oakbay Investments. Don’t expect an outcome right away.

The Gupta family's former PR firm Bell Pottinger will appear before the Public Relations and Communications Association [PRCA] in London on Friday.
The Gupta family's former PR firm Bell Pottinger will appear before the Public Relations and Communications Association [PRCA] in London on Friday.

Last Friday, 18 August, public relations firm Bell Pottinger answered for its work with the Gupta-affiliated holding company Oakbay Investments. The public relations firm faced a disciplinary hearing led by the UK's Public Relations and Communications Association [PRCA].

On Thursday, Democratic Alliance [DA] spokesperson Phumzile van Damme landed in the UK for the hearing, which was held behind closed doors at an undisclosed location in London. Last month the DA lodged a complaint with the PRCA regarding Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay Investments, a company closely associated the controversial Gupta family.

The outcome of Friday's disciplinary process was not concluded immediately, however. At the earliest, a public announcement could be made on before the end of August, but the decision may only be finalised in the first week of September. All depends on the outcome of Friday's hearings.

"The Committee has received written evidence from the Democratic Alliance and Bell Pottinger, and both organisations will have the opportunity to give oral evidence at the hearing," PRCA Director General Francis Ingham said in a statement.

The DA described Bell Pottinger's work as "a racially-fuelled propaganda campaign for the Guptas and Zumas."

Now that the PRCA's disciplinary committee has heard both sides of the matter it will vote on Bell Pottinger's conduct. Should the committee decide on suspended or terminated membership, the decision will then be referred to the PRCA board for review.

If a suspension or termination is sanctioned by the board, Bell Pottinger will have the right to appeal within five days of receiving the outcome in writing. Ingham said last week, "The PRCA will make a decision based on the evidence presented at the hearing, and on the recommendation of the Professional Practices Committee. The outcome of the investigation will be announced on or before the week commencing 4th September."

Bell Pottinger closed its Oakbay Investment account in April this year, following public scrutiny over the PR firm's work in South Africa. Prior to closing the Oakbay account, Bell Pottinger lost several clients, among them South African financial services company Investec and Johann Rupert's luxury goods company Richemont.

"Once our group executive became aware of Bell Pottinger's involvement with Oakbay we decided to end our relationship with them," Ursula Nobrega, Head of Investor Relations at Investec, wrote in an email.

In a statement last month, the DA described Bell Pottinger's work as "a racially-fuelled propaganda campaign for the Guptas and Zumas" involving the use of phrases such as "white monopoly capital" and "end economic apartheid."

The efforts to deflect attention from the Gupta's corruption was a campaign in part designed, aided and abetted by Bell Pottinger personnel.

Information in the tranche of leaked documents published by investigative unit amaBhungane indicates Bell Pottinger sub-contracted an Israeli online reputation management company, Veribo, to run a digital campaign for Oakbay Capital. Speaking to Marriane Thamm of the Daily Maverick, Veribo CEO Dan Blayer said, "We learned earlier this year of what is really going on in South Africa and terminated work on Gupta/Oakbay."

Yet, Bell Pottinger's CEO has downplayed the firm's role in online reputation management and digital campaigns for the Guptas. In a statement issued on 6 July and followed up in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC], CEO James Henderson denied Bell Pottinger supported or aided a campaign to stir up racial division in South Africa. "Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep concern."

In an interview with the BBC's Manveen Rena, Henderson said his firm was "at worst naive" about the Gupta account, and that Bell Pottinger was doing its best to defend its client. Henderson is currently on an extended holiday, likely laying low as the PR firm works out its way forward. According to BusinessLIVE, Henderson and his fiancée Heather Kerzner jointly own 37 percent of Bell Pottinger. Not, in all likelihood, for very long.

Whatever the outcome of last Friday's hearing, Bell Pottinger's work has already cost the firm accounts, reputational damage, and senior staff. It is unlikely Bell Pottinger will emerge from the PRCA process unscathed.

However, an industry body such as the PRCA disciplinary committee is ill-equipped to hold Bell Pottinger to proper account for the damage to South Africa's national psyche and the impact of its divisive work on investor confidence. That requires the might of the law. Efforts to deflect attention from the Gupta's corruption through hateful rhetoric formed an opportunistic and egregious campaign designed, aided and abetted in part by Bell Pottinger personnel.