EDITORIAL: How Bell Pottinger was caught in their own trap
The thing that British public relations firm Bell Pottinger needed some time ago was good advice from a public relations firm: don’t take on this client.
Over the years, Bell Pottinger famously took on several controversial clients. That is in itself nothing special. People who need public relations help are often those who are viewed in a poor light by the public. A public relations firm can present their side of the story and this can be a service to society because it enhances the total body of knowledge.
But often, clients want to improve their image by telling lies and duping the public. Experienced public relations practitioners know the difference and keep away from the liars, lest they get caught in the swell when the ship goes down.
It is becoming clear that in this case, the Gupta family wasn’t interested in telling its side of the story, but in creating a diversion to obscure the truth.
A good public relations company would surely advise Henderson to donate the fee to a good cause in SA
Well, this is all water under the bridge, so now that Bell Pottinger has dumped its noxious client, it needs some good advice from, you guessed it, a public relations firm.
In a rare interview this week, Atul Gupta told the BBC’s Radio 4 there was "no authenticity" in the leaked e-mails. "They are all everyday deception mongering to drive their own agenda," he said.
This is complete nonsense. Numerous people including Lakela Kaunda‚ a senior official in President Jacob Zuma’s office, confirmed they did, in fact, send or receive the e-mails.
James Henderson‚ the CEO of Bell Pottinger, told the BBC he believed his team that worked on the Gupta family account had acted with the best of intentions.
"At worst, we were very naïve with what we got involved in. We were trying to do a good job for a client in managing their reputation and defending them from a number of accusations," Henderson said.
Unfortunately for him, his own former boss, Tim Bell, who left the firm partly because of an argument over the Gupta account, had a different take on the brief.
Bell said he was present during the first meeting with Tony Gupta and there was never any discussion of doing any public relations for Gupta’s company‚ Oakbay.
Gupta felt he had been stopped from doing business because he was the wrong colour and only white people could raise money in SA, Bell said.
"That’s why I think he wanted a campaign for economic emancipation because I think he wanted to improve the position of his company and to down the opposition," he said.
Hence, right from the start, the plan, according to the company’s founder, was to play up racial and economic jingoism in order to counter the accusation that the Guptas were receiving special favours from the government. By denying that this was the case, Henderson has made the position of the company worse by lying about the nature of the campaign.
When the BBC asked him whether he would go to SA to explain what happened, he replied that he would not "at this stage". And, to top it all, when asked whether he would return the £100,000 monthly fee Bell Pottinger was paid, he tried to worm his way out of making any such commitment by claiming that the company hadn’t made anything out of the account because it had ended up being damaging.
He was presumably talking about the expense involved in hiring law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to audit its work and the defence it is going to have to mount in the investigation by the UK’s Public Relations Consultants Association for possibly breaching the association’s code of ethics.
To those who have been smeared in the "monopoly white capital" campaign this sounds like prevaricating. A good public relations company would surely advise Henderson to donate the fee to a good cause in SA.