The dirty business of shaping perceptions
Bell Pottinger’s Zupta campaign shows why public relations practice has been termed inherently unethical, writes Yunus Momoniat
Atul Gupta told the BBC his side of the story last week, saying Bell Pottinger, an "ethical" British public relations company, was hired to polish the image of the Guptas’ Oakbay company and that the leaked e-mails were not authentic.
But everyone knows the Bell Pottinger public relations campaign on behalf of the Guptas and Zuma family was at least an exercise in deception and perhaps something more — like state capture.
The remit of a public relations firm, hired by a particular client, is to enhance the image of its client and, if possible, to make it popular in the eyes of a target market, in this instance, the South African public.
Tobacco companies have used public relations firms to mount campaigns targeting high school pupils, projecting themselves as caring and responsible corporate entities and not as purveyors of cancerous products. We call that spin.
Bell Pottinger did not mount a campaign for Oakbay, it did not try to polish its tarnished image. Rather, it engaged in a covert operation to present the enemies of the Zuptas as treasonous enemies of the South African public. The pot was calling the kettle black. Above all, it concealed the campaign, hardly mentioning Oakbay and covering up the work it was doing.
Bell Pottinger created a comprehensive infrastructure to push a multifaceted operation. It created new organisations or bolstered pro-Zupta groupings — uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), the ANC Youth League, Black First Land First and Mzwanele Manyi’s various fronts.
It used anonymous websites from which it sent out e-mails and social media messages to plant ideas in the public realm that would make its client appear less guilty — of state capture — than it was, without naming the problem. It created content for the pronouncements of the organisations: speeches, statistics and arguments, much of which amounted to libel.
It was essential that the campaign concealed the source of statements pushed out to shape public opinion, because they had to appear as authentic ideas and the sentiments of those who made the pronouncements: MKMVA leader Kebby Maphatsoe, ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine, the so-called political commentators on the ANN7 television channel — and even President Jacob Zuma, judging from some of his especially Zulu-language speeches.
These statements were meant to appear as the genuine sentiments of a disgruntled section of the population, but their real function was to deflect attention from the Zuptas, to say that others had been doing what the Zuptas were accused of doing.
Public relations practitioners like to dress up what they do as a ’discipline’, a social science branch
The most pertinent question that arises from such a campaign, one that tries to pretend that it does not exist, is the ethics of the public relations company and its clients. Public relations practitioners like to dress up what they do as a "discipline", a branch of the social sciences.
It is not.
On its website, Bell Pottinger declares that it is "a leading integrated reputation management agency. We help shape our clients’ reputation, engage with diverse stakeholders across multiple channels, tell effective stories and run creative campaigns to enhance their brand and deliver commercial success". It goes on to pump up its own brand, boasting that it has a range of resources to mount "creative" and commercially successful campaigns.
"Our teams are drawn from a range of disciplines including the financial and corporate worlds, political and legal professions, digital, design and consumer brand specialists."
With this broad expertise, Bell Pottinger devised a strategy to drive the Zupta campaign. It is easy to envision a postmodern nightmare in which its "creatives" organise an "all-nighter" and using political "science", psychoanalysis, word association and a smattering of history, arrive at the Zupta El Dorado: "Yes! White monopoly capital." Subsequent sessions would depend on an analysis of the famous race-class debate and resolutions of South African Communist Party meetings.
A Marxist or two will be present, all the while keeping an eye on costs and devoting only so much time and resources to ensure their efforts are effective — and profitable for Bell Pottinger.
One writer has referred to the "inherently unethical" nature of public relations practice.
It was the modern originator of the profession, Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who put his talents to use in the 1920s, promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes. Later, he used psychoanalysis, apparently successfully, to convince young women that smoking was a form of feminist rebellion.
The first line of his book, simply entitled Propaganda, says: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society."
Joseph Goebbels was doing similar work in Germany for the Nazis from 1933, so public relations practice, or propaganda, is not particularly a product or producer of democracy. The opposite, perhaps.
Public relations companies are mercenaries in the realm of discourse and fake news. They invented fake news as well as fake concepts such as brands, logos and all the lies advertising companies spout so their clients — always large corporations, governments and other behemoths — can have their way.
You have to search hard to find a public relations company working for a small, well-meaning activist grouping.
A 2004 book, Ethics in Public Relations, notes that there are "persistent rumblings about the integrity of the practice".
It goes on to say: "However, there is no doubt that public relations people sometimes face difficulties in the complex working environment in which they operate. Although they want to tell the truth, sometimes their understanding of the truth is imperfect for a variety of reasons …. Being loyal to employers while living with conscience can bring conflict."
Evidently, Bell Pottinger’s practitioners had no such conflict. For the firm to plead that it had imperfect knowledge of its mercenary labours in the service of the Gupta family is, to put it plainly, bulls**t. After all, it was using a wide range of disciplines to inform its campaign, as it did for Shrien Dewani, Oscar Pistorius and General Augusto Pinochet. Bell Pottinger used, in its own words, "multiple channels [to] tell effective stories and run creative campaigns to enhance" the narrative of white monopoly capital.
For poor, victimised Atul Gupta to say he does not know "where [the phrase] white monopoly capital comes from" is, again, bulls**t. But we all know the Guptas have a very tenuous grasp of the truth. In Atul’s "narrative", Bell Pottinger is "such an ethical company, it should not be doing anything funny". It takes an ethical type to recognise one of his own.
The pot, in a weird inversion, calling the kettle black?