When your (highly paid) job is to work behind the scenes it’s usually commercial suicide to become the story. This is exactly what is happening to London PR firm Bell Pottinger – whether or not it amounts to commercial suicide remains to be seen.
Bell Pottinger has been accused by South African opposition leader Mmusi Maimane of running a “hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race” for its clients the controversial Gupta family which allegedly involved, among other things, the creation of fake Twitter accounts to target white business people in South Africa, some of whom were its clients.
One such, Johann Rupert of long-standing Bell Pottinger client Richemont, said: “And whilst they were still in the employment of Richemont, they started working for the Guptas..their total task was to deflect attention (from the Guptas). Guess who they took as a target? A client of theirs – me!”
Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson (below with one-time partner Lord Bell) has fired the team he says were responsible and apologised thus: “Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep concern. We wish to issue a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened.”
Bell Pottinger now faces a closed hearing before trade body the PRCA this Friday which can eject it from the association. Any other sanctions it might face are not yet clear. The biggest sanction is likely to be loss of business though. Richemont and financial giant Investec have already walked while the £100,000 per month contract with the Guptas, who have been accused of winning vast South African government contracts through improper means, was terminated by the agency in April.
Amidst all this is a spectacular falling out between Lord Bell, the founder of Bell Pottinger who left last year, and his one time protégé Henderson. Bell says he objected to taking on the Gupta account.
In his long career Bell has usually been prepared to take on contentious accounts but never been daft enough to do so at the expense of his other clients. Neither, one supposes, would he have countenanced setting up fake Twitter accounts, especially as Bell Pottinger found itself in hot water a while back over accusations that it had amended Wikipedia accounts to suit its clients.
It’s hard to see how Henderson can survive this fiasco and, maybe, Bell Pottinger too. Bell now runs his own PR operation Sans Frontieres Associates with a staff including some ex-politicos with considerable experience of working in the, on the face of it, unlikely PR gold mine of Africa.
Bell Pottinger shareholders, who include WPP through its holding in Chime Communications, might be wondering if it’s time to bring old fox Bell back.