A small Tel Aviv-based reputation management company sub-contracted by Bell Pottinger to promote the Gupta family and Oakbay in South Africa ditched the London-based multinational when it learnt it had been implicated in State Capture in South Africa. Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance has finalised submissions to be handed to the Public Relations and Communications Association who will start investigating Bell Pottinger. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Ran Blayer, CEO of Veribo, a boutique online reputation management company based in Tel Aviv, confirmed to Daily Maverick on Monday that Bell Pottinger had been one of its customers.
“Bell Pottinger hired us in connection to their customer, Oakbay and the Gupta family,” Blayer confirmed, adding, “We learned earlier this year of what is really going on in South Africa and terminated work on Gupta/Oakbay. We have since read more [of] what has been going on in South Africa. This is shocking and unacceptable to us. We now regret our involvement with these individuals.”
Asked whether Veribo had assisted Bell Pottinger in the creation of bots and sockpuppets who targeted and bullied journalists and other individuals online, Blayer said Veribo’s work had been part of a digital campaign and that the company did not have the capability to use bots.
“We upload content and use publishing tools such as online ads to share positive information. This over time helps improve positive search engine results which is our key goal for any customer,” he said.
The aftershock and the implication of South Africa’s collective response to Bell Pottinger’s racially divisive campaign – including the Democratic Alliance’s lodging of a complaint with professional bodies in the UK – has continued to preoccupy PR practitioners internationally.
It remains a succulent tale of a David vs a multinational spin-doctoring giant who has consorted with and cleaned up the reputations of some of the world’s most unsavoury characters and regimes.
Claudine Moore, board member of the World Communications Forum Association, writing in the trade magazine PR Week, described the situation Bell Pottinger currently found itself in as “a nightmare”.
“Embroiled in a highly toxic political firestorm of a scandal in South Africa, the London-based PR firm is dealing with a crisis that would leave even the most stoic of agency bosses in an absolute meltdown,” Moore wrote.
She suggested that as a result of the fallout from the South African scandal Bell Pottinger would find it “very difficult to secure business in South Africa and across the continent in the near future”. She said it was clear the agency made “shockingly naïve blunders in a key emerging market”.
The Economist weighed in, saying Western firms had long “offered help to shady leaders wanting to gild their reputations overseas” but that “increasingly, however, they are being drafted to run domestic political campaigns too – spreading deft propaganda via social media”. Bell Pottinger, the Economist noted, was not the only firm working on the continent – Analytica, the company credited with helping Trump to victory, was currently working with President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, while in Gabon three firms had worked on the re-election campaign of President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
At least 15 countries have contracts with American lobbying firms, according to details submitted in the US under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). No such laws exist in Europe.
Meanwhile, DA national spokesperson and Shadow Minister of Communications, Phumzile van Damme, who has been at the forefront of ensuring Bell Pottinger face some sort of inquiry, was on Monday finalising statements to be dispatched to the UK industry body the Public Relations and Communications Association, which will be conducting the probe, which starts on 18 August.
On Saturday, DA leader Mmusi Maimane revealed that he had personally written to Bell Pottinger’s clients requesting them to ditch the company.
“Bell Pottinger must face consequences for their collusion with the Guptas using a hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race,” he said, adding, “This was a co-ordinated campaign to further Gupta financial interests, and ensure the captured ANC continued to provide lucrative contracts that lined Gupta pockets.”
Maimane said that in the greater scheme of things, while legal action might be effective, “corporations respond to their bottom line faster than they do judges”.
The DA had earlier requested PRCA to hold an open public inquiry but Bell Pottinger had objected to the request and it will now be held behind closed doors.
When the extent of Bell Pottinger’s involvement in shaping a political and economic narrative in South Africa not only for the Gupta family and their interests but for the President’s son, Duduzane Zuma, the ANCYL as well as MKVA came to light, the firm enlisted the help of the legal firm Herbert Smith Freehills LLP to review the work it did for the Guptas and Oakbay.
On 7 July this year, after first denying that it had stirred racial hatred in South Africa, Bell Pottinger’s CEO, Jim Henderson, issued a “full, unequivocal and absolute apology” to South Africans. He said that the firm’s activities “should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry it happened.”
Lead partner, Victoria Geoghegan, and three other employees who worked on the Gupta campaign, were dismissed. Henderson said that the company’s partners had been “misled” and that the work that was being done “goes against the very core of our ethical policies”.
However, writing in the Financial Times, Joseph Cotterill and David Bond reported that Lord Bell, founder of Bell Pottinger, claimed that Henderson knew from the start the nature of the work the company was performing for the Guptas.
It was Canada’s Globe and Mail that recognised the power of South Africa’s collective outrage when the truth of Bell Pottinger’s dirty tricks emerged in the #GuptaLeaks.
On 7 July, the day Bell Pottinger apologised to the nation, Geoffrey York wrote, “The London-based agency, founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former spin doctor, may have finally met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa. When it secretly devised a racially divisive campaign on behalf of President Jacob Zuma’s son and business cronies for a fee of about $170,000 a month, the campaign soon spiralled into disaster.”
So far this has been one of the only highlights in the entire sordid and depressing State Capture story which continues to unravel daily. DM
(Underlying photo by Gall0)
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