Toronto Star

Controvers­ial PR firm suffers swift downfall

UK company shut down after using an unethical campaign for South African president


When South African track star Oscar Pistorius stood trial for the brutal killing of his girlfriend, he hired Bell Pottinger, an aggressive British public relations firm, to try to smooth his tattered reputation. Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife turned to the firm for help in recasting their image. So did Alexander G. Lukashenko, the former dictator of Belarus.

In the fraught world of image makeovers, Bell Pottinger stood out for venturing where others feared to go. It courted embattled government­s, controvers­ial clients and powerful people who ran afoul of public opinion. Along the way, it reaped hefty fees and became one of Britain’s most influentia­l public relations firms.

But on Tuesday, Bell Pottinger came crashing down after its latest effort, in South Africa, spiralled into disaster. The firm was forced to appoint administra­tors for its British operations as clients, employees and a major shareholde­r cut their ties to the firm.

Bell Pottinger’s swift downfall sent shudders through the public relations industry and raised questions about the increasing­ly combative tactics used by those who engage in what critics call “reputation laundering.”

The firm’s collapse came after an independen­t report released last week showed that it had conducted an unethical, race-baiting campaign that exploited divisions between South Africa’s Black and white residents with the goal of diverting attention from a scandal surroundin­g the country’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma.

After the report was issued, Britain’s Public Relations and Commu- nications Associatio­n expelled Bell Pottinger from its ranks, making it the first big company to be forced from the group. James Henderson, Bell Pottinger’s chief executive, resigned. Clients, including British bank HSBC and luxury firm Richemont, dropped the firm, its reputation as soiled as those of some of the controvers­ial figures it advised.

“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communicat­ions industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions,” said Francis Ingham, the public relations associatio­n’s directorge­neral, in a statement.

The firm’s failure underscore­s the broader pressures roiling the public relations industry in a whipsaw online world, where fake news, Twitterbot­s, manipulate­d Google searches and revised Wikipedia pages are valuable tools for helping to shape narratives and recast reputation­s.

Bell Pottinger’s collapse also highlights the eagerness of politician­s, celebritie­s, companies and government­s around the world to hire a communicat­ions firm that will sometimes go to extreme lengths to influence opinion and media coverage, or to ignite activism through social networks.

Many firms do similar work, but Bell Pottinger’s penchant for taking on questionab­le clients raised concerns about its own ethics, especially among its British counterpar­ts.

Timothy Bell, a London political and social operator who helped Margaret Thatcher, the former U.K. prime minister, start her political career, was a founder of Bell Pottinger in 1998.

The firm counted Airbus and CocaCola as clients, but it also advised President F.W. de Klerk of apartheide­ra South Africa on how to run against Nelson Mandela and helped afoundatio­n backed by supporters of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, fight his detention by Britain for human rights violations.

Bell, a gregarious, blunt-spoken man whom Thatcher nominated for knighthood, insisted that there were two sides to every story and that Bell Pottinger’s job was to make sure that the version it was telling prevailed. He left the firm last year to start a new venture.

“We help shape client reputation­s, tell effective stories and run creative campaigns to enhance their brand and deliver commercial success,” the firm said on its website.

As Bell Pottinger’s client list grew increasing­ly controvers­ial, so did the tactics it employed.

In 2011, it attracted scrutiny after the Bureau of Investigat­ive Journalism, a non-profit news organizati­on based in London, determined that Bell Pottinger managers had removed negative informatio­n from the Wikipedia page for the Uzbek government, which was accused of human rights violations. The managers were also found to have employed search engine optimizati­on strategies to drive articles on Uzbek human rights abuses lower in Google search results for the country.

Other investigat­ions by the journalism bureau showed that Bell Pot- tinger had used similar tactics for other clients.

Such methods are not illegal and are widely used by companies, government­s and other public relations firms. But Bell Pottinger appeared to test the limits of its approach in South Africa last year when it was hired by Oakbay Capital, a holding company run by the Gupta brothers, members of a powerful Indian family with widespread business interests in South Africa and close ties to Zuma.

The South African president, long a target of corruption allegation­s, was under growing criticism for supposedly allowing the Guptas to influence government appointmen­ts and securing lucrative government contracts through cronyism. The Guptas also attracted negative press coverage stemming from accusation­s that they had used their wealth to influence Zuma as average South Africans languished.

After being hired by Oakbay for a monthly fee of £100,000, or about $163,000 (U.S.), Bell Pottinger initiated what it called an “economic emancipati­on campaign.”

The firm sought to portray oppo- nents of the Guptas and Zuma as agents of white-owned businesses eager to economical­ly disenfranc­hise Black South Africans.

The firm edited the Guptas’ Wikipedia page to tone down negative material and encouraged activists to spread stories online that suggested “economic apartheid” was deepening in South Africa because of the minority white population.

A hashtag, #WhiteMonop­olyCapital, circulated on Twitter, and the term “white monopoly capital” began to be used on a television station owned by the Guptas, according to local news reports. Zuma also spoke of “white monopoly capital” as being a driving force behind calls for his resignatio­n.

The campaign began to unravel when thousands of emails from Gupta company accounts were leaked in May. The messages, published by South African and British media outlets, suggested that Zuma’s son, Duduazne, a former director of some Gupta-owned companies, had instructed Bell Pottinger to pursue a strategy of racial division “along the lines of #EconomicEm­ancipation or whatever.”

 ?? MATT DUNHAM/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Bell Pottinger’s office in London. Its collapse raises questions about companies involved in "reputation laundering."
MATT DUNHAM/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Bell Pottinger’s office in London. Its collapse raises questions about companies involved in "reputation laundering."

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