EDITORIAL: A quick resource for PRCA’s Bell Pottinger investigation
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Professional industry bodies either need to act on or throw away the charters on which they have built their relevance and credibility.
PRCA to investigate Bell Pottinger
The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), a UK-based PR and communications membership body, has confirmed that it will be investigating PR firm Bell Pottinger’s work for Gupta-owned company, Oakbay Investments, which also allegedly involved a wide spectrum of individuals and organisations broadly aligned with South African president Jacob Zuma’s alleged (a very well-documented allegation) state capture project. Bell Pottinger is a member of the PRCA.
“We can confirm that we have received a complaint against Bell Pottinger, filed by Democratic Alliance (the South African political party),” states Francis Ingham MPRCA, director general, PRCA. “Bell Pottinger has been notified of this. We will now begin the formal process set out in the PRCA Professional Charter and Code of Conduct to investigate this alleged complaint.”
The charter of the PRCA demands members not “[e]ngage in any practice nor be seen to conduct themselves in any manner detrimental to the reputation of the Association or the reputation and interests of the Public Relations and Communications profession”. It also demands members “conduct their professional activities with proper regard to the public interest,” and that members “have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently.”
The charter also demands members “[n]either propose nor undertake any action which would constitute an improper influence on organs of government, or on legislation, or on the media of communication.” Finally, “[a] member is required to take all reasonable care that professional duties are conducted without causing offence on the grounds of gender, race, religion, disability or any other form of discrimination or unacceptable reference.”
BP claims victimisation
Since resigning the account earlier this year, Bell Pottinger has consistently portrayed itself as a victim of South Africa’s volatile political environment. In April 2017, it told the Financial Times that it was “the target of a politically driven smear campaign in South Africa over the last few months, with a number of totally false and damaging accusations levelled at it”.
In May, PR trade publication PRWeek UK was told the company had dropped the Gupta brothers’ business because of “abusive and threatening” comments made by South Africans on social media, and had lost the South African Tourism business because of “gross misrepresentation of our work for former client Oakbay”.
A tranche of 200 000 or so emails to and from the Gupta family — verified as true by a number of senior politicians — shows that Bell Pottinger suggested to Oakbay that it create a “political narrative around the existence of economic apartheid and the vital need for more economic emancipation” (read white monopoly capital), that it would “utilise compelling research, case studies and data which illustrate the apartheid that still exists, and the need for truly inclusive growth”. All this would be done by “setting up of a vehicle (the ‘entity’) to be the public face of the narrative”.
Bell Pottinger’s Nick Lambert thanked ANCYL leader Collen Maine for “some very interesting remarks by the Youth Leader, and some good messages for us” after viewing a YouTube clip of Maine. Some of the points he highlighted, according to independent investigative journalists at Scorpio and amaBhungane, included: “White monopoly capital continues its stranglehold on economy. White monopoly capital decides what is printed in media. Unemployment persists”, as well as “the EFF seeks to destroy those who tell good news in the media, and which is in the interests of our country – in particular ANN7 and New Age – these are for the people”, and “ANC respects the people, the markets do not. The markets are controlled in London. What they are doing to the Rand is not ok.”
- Read: Scorpio and amaBhungane #GuptaLeaks: Bell Pottinger, ANCYL and MK veterans – the early days
- Read: Ferial Haffajee: The Gupta Fake News Factory And Me
- Read: Hidden hand drives social media smears
- Read: Dubai the Beloved Country: how the Guptas broke South Africa
Bell Pottinger has been exposed as knowing (and leaking) the recommendations for a judicial inquiry into South Africa’s banks at least seven weeks before they were published. At the time, it put out a statement saying, “Bell Pottinger has encountered widespread sympathy for the way Oakbay has been treated and did not seek to obtain this information, but was made aware of it. Given its relevance to the issue of Oakbay’s closed accounts, the public interest and the ongoing media coverage of the story, Bell Pottinger contacted Fin24/News24 to put the information into the public domain.” [Read the full statement here.]
Dates back to 2010
For insight into the Gupta family and its business dealings in South Africa dating back all the way to 2010 (which Bell Pottinger executives would have had free access to, just in case you wondered what they did or didn’t know about their well-paying clients):
- Read: Guptas turn R3m into R900m in mystery-shrouded mining deal (Dec 2016)
- Read: Oakbay asks court to compel FIC to provide details on 72 ‘suspicious’ transactions (Nov 2016)
- Read: ‘Time to cause some havoc': The weird web of Gupta-linked misinformation
- Read: Sexwale-linked company in Gupta mine funding scandal (Nov 2016)
- Read: Gupta bombshell: Zuma on the ropes after Gordhan’s gloves come off (Nov 2016)
- Read: How Denel was hijacked (May 2016)
- Read: Zuma rehashes 2011 Gupta denial (March 2016)
- Read: Free State dairy project damned in treasury investigation (Feb 2014) and the followup #GuptaLeaks: Despite denials, Free State dairy farm was huge cash spinner for Guptas
- Read: Guptas key to ArcelorMittal deal (Aug 2010)
- Read: A timeline of Zuma-Gupta issues from Nenegate to the firing of Pravin Gordhan
Not the first time
Bell Pottinger has a history of allegedly editing client profiles on Wikipedia (also read Did Bell Pottinger Help Get Rid Of Pravin Gordhan?), writing speeches that reframe abuses by governments (also read Bell Pottinger, ANCYL and MK veterans – the early days) and the creation of fake content (pretty much all the links in this piece).
- Read: Analysis: Bell Pottinger – more than just spin, it’s political interference in sovereign states
Unprecedented attack on civil society
In conclusion, Bell Pottinger knew who it was taking on as clients, and it would have been obvious as to what would have been required to ‘rehabilitate’ the public perceptions of these clients, given the well-documented, and wide-spread, allegations of state capture against them.
The revised narrative, constructed by Bell Pottinger for its clients, not only allowed the alleged continued looting of South Africa’s state coffers but also resulted (whether motivated or not) in an unprecedented attack on civil society as it tried to stem the tide of state corruption, including against those who oppose this from within the ruling party, opposition politicians, journalists, religious leaders and (actual) struggle veterans.
Nothing that Bell Pottinger planned, executed or advised its clients on could possibly be construed as to having been in the public interest, nor did it seemingly, the #GuptaLeak emails show, not disseminate false or misleading information “knowingly or recklessly.”
No longer an option
The broader PR industry, and the brands which associate and ultimately enable Bell Pottinger and its ilk, may shrug its shoulders and say, “This has nothing to do with us.” In truth, that is no longer an option. Civil society, here in South Africa but also in the home territories of these brands, have indicated that the social contract between business and communities has changed. This is the reason that we don’t buy clothes made by child labourers — or accept and shrug off sub-standard products and repairs which lead to tragedies such as Grenfell Tower in London.
Change has come slowly for the PR industry but is now inevitable. Embrace it or fall on the wrong side of history. The days where you can shrug off responsibility for your actions are over.
- Dissident Spin Doctor: When PR agencies go rogue
- Dissident Spin Doctor: The role of PR during times of fake news
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.