EDITORIAL: The Bell Pottinger virus endures
The British public relations company’s campaign has been simultaneously disastrous and successful
In the end, a public relations company that successfully duped millions on behalf of the mighty Pentagon has been brought to its knees by South African twitterati.
On Monday, the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills presented its report on British public relations company Bell Pottinger and found, unsurprisingly, that the company was in breach of ethical principles in its campaign to bring about "economic emancipation" in SA.
The announcement of the findings in the report, which was commissioned by the public relations firm, was preceded by the resignation of its CEO, James Henderson. Such is the brutal definiteness of the British way. Henderson was not himself involved in the work, but he was CEO and fell on his sword.
Bell Pottinger has not released the report, but in a sense it does not have to; the nature of the campaign in all its viciousness and contemptible ethics is well known. But it remains important to know precisely what the company did and to what extent its detestable campaign endures.
The key to changing attitudes in the modern world are two related concepts: viral marketing and personal suggestion. Personal suggestion is based on a simple but effective notion: people are much more inclined to believe an idea that is suggested to them by acquaintances than those suggested to a mass of people simultaneously. Over the years, people have got wise to mass advertising, so its effectiveness is muted by consumers’ knowledge that they are being sold something.
Viral marketing works by trying to persuade a large number of people to suggest to others the utility of a product or idea. They then suggest it to others and so on. Such campaigns can be very effective and they are enormously facilitated by using social media that makes the process of enhancing virality quick and easy.
The main focus of the campaign was diverting attention from the business shenanigans of the Gupta clan, who were after all Bell Pottinger’s client, by aggressively abusing SA’s most painful wound: the racial divide
What Bell Pottinger did was to establish an idea that had some provenance and to seed its virality. It did so entirely by manipulation. It authored about 5,000 tweets from July 2016 to 2017 that were retweeted 215,000 times in an automated system. From there, the virality took over. On Facebook, it used the same system, posting around 4,000 times and then "liking" the posts 28,000 times. To add fuel to the fire, it used Google and Facebook advertising to enhance the message.
To say the campaign was noxious would be an understatement. According to the Mail on Sunday, it included sexual slurs against journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and paying Twitter users to spread propaganda, some of which Bell Pottinger has denied.
But the main focus of the campaign was diverting attention from the business shenanigans of the Gupta clan, who were after all Bell Pottinger’s client, by aggressively abusing SA’s most painful wound: the racial divide. And so was born a campaign around the notion of "white monopoly capital" and "radical economic transformation".
The Herbert Smith Freehills report says the term "white monopoly capital" was not invented by Bell Pottinger and had been used by the liberation movement before. All good advertising campaigns contain an element of truth that they aim to manipulate in ulterior ways. But in this case, the problem for Bell Pottinger was that the message it chose to put out was so profoundly evil that it fell foul of British ethics rules.
Yet, the company can take heart from one thing: the campaign continues to flourish. Undeterred by its colonial origins, the proponents of the ideas still parrot them without any visible embarrassment. In a sense, it has been simultaneously one of the most disastrous and successful campaigns in history.
To their abiding credit, the vast majority of South Africans have seen through the claims, but to say that no damage has been done would be naive.