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War breaks out at Bell Pottinger over Gupta campaign

Britain’s biggest PR firm, Bell Pottinger, 25 per cent owned by Chime Communications in which WPP is a substantial shareholder, is embroiled in a life-threatening row over its work for the controversial South African Gupta brothers who have prospered mightily under freewheeling South African president Jacob Zuma.

In particular it’s being accused of running a ‘fake news’ social media campaign, attacking so-called ‘South African monopoly capitalism’ which has led to public outcry in South Africa and the dismissal of Bell Pottinger partner Victoria Geoghegan and some of her team.

Bell Pottinger, founded by Tim Bell (now Lord Bell) and Piers Pottinger, has previous in this area, having been hired by the US government in the aftermath of the last Iraq War to do much the same. Bell quit last year to set up new operation Sans Frontières.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson (below with Bell), who had previously denied any wrongdoing by his company, was put on the spot on today’s BBC Radio World at One by reporter Manveen Rana who skewered him for the company’s dubious choice of clients and activity in this campaign (Henderson didn’t do that badly, considering he was standing on one leg).

Photo: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Unfortunately for him just about every utterance was contradicted by Bell who claimed he’d warned the company off the Gupta brothers but his advice had been ignored.

Bell, who’s famously said on many occasions that his (then) company would represent anyone (past and present clients include Chilean dictator General Pinochet, Bahrain and, according to its Wikipedia entry anyway, Rolf Harris) sidestepped the question of ethics by pointing out that the campaign for the Gupta brothers’ Oakbay company had cost Bell Pottinger valuable clients including Investec and South Africa’s Richemont, which owns Cartier and Dunhill among others.

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Bell Pottinger has always sailed close to the wind but had cover from the outspoken and proudly libertarian Bell who’s view was that PR companies were like criminal barristers, you took on the brief if the client could pay.

The rather more conventional Henderson now has to fight the Bell corner – with Bell in the other one.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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