James Henderson. Picture:BELL POTTINGER
James Henderson. Picture:BELL POTTINGER

The CEO of Bell Pottinger has stood down ahead of the publication of an independent report into its work with the Gupta family, which has damaged the reputation of one of the City of London’s best-known public relation firms.

CEO James Henderson, a significant shareholder in Bell Pottinger, confirmed that he had left the role at the weekend.

Henderson’s position has been in question since he issued an "unequivocal" apology in July related to allegations that the firm had stirred up racial tension in SA through its messaging on behalf of Oakbay, a Gupta-controlled company.

South African media and civil society groups accused the firm of presenting opponents of the Guptas and President Jacob Zuma as "white monopoly capital", including engineering fake social media profiles amplifying attacks.

Bell Pottinger left the account in April, but the scandal had already cost it clients including Investec and Richemont.

Four Bell Pottinger workers were dismissed or suspended in July after law firm Herbert Smith Freehills was appointed to probe the debacle. The law firm’s full report is due to be published on Monday alongside a statement about Henderson’s exit.

The Guptas, who built a business empire stretching from media to mining after moving to SA from India in the 1990s, are at the centre of one of SA’s biggest scandals since apartheid. They have been accused of using their ties to Zuma and his family to influence political appointments to secure lucrative contracts.

The Guptas and Zuma have denied the allegations. But the controversy has threatened to split the ANC and triggered calls for Zuma to step down.

Henderson, who in 2012 led a £20m buyout of Bell Pottinger alongside co-founder Lord Bell, said he had no involvement in the Oakbay account, but had taken responsibility as CEO.

"The relevant team has been dealt with, the chief executive has now gone, the business can move forward and put all this behind it. That is key," he said.

Bell met the Guptas in early 2016, but says he advised Bell Pottinger against taking the account. He has since left the business that bears his name.

Bell said Henderson could have quit the Oakbay account before the scandal erupted, but chose not to. "He’s in charge. I don’t see any alternative for him but to leave," he said.

The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is investigating Bell Pottinger after the DA brought a complaint. It is expected to issue a statement this week.

The Financial Times 

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