I think it’s a stretch to call marketing and public relations (PR) people (including me), “professionals”. That’s my opinion, based on the fact that there are no barriers to entering the occupation, and anyone can say they do marketing or public relations. Some employers expect their marketing people to have a university degree or professional accreditation, but many others do not. And often the perception of unprofessionalism is not due to a lack of qualifications, but to attitude and image. In fact – as offensive as this might be to some people – marketing departments where I worked long ago were known as places where the party girls would be sent to pass the time in between looking pretty at trade show booths and “client appreciation events”, and where the good ol’ boys would go to spend most of their time glad-handing their pals and drinking in the golf club bar.
Despite the fact that there is a serious side to both activities, namely running the numbers and minding the legalities, most people think they can do it themselves, since “it’s so easy” – after all, “it’s not a science”. We who do this for a living, have no-one to blame for these perceptions but ourselves. There are too many people who get away with unprofessional conduct. So I was actually delighted to see, for once, that a PR company whose managers did not behave professionally has gone down in flames. The company is Bell Pottinger and it’s a whopper of a scandal.
During 2016 and 2017 in South Africa, a particularly volatile time, British PR firm Bell Pottinger was employed by the Oakbay Investments (Pty) Ltd., the Johannesburg-based holding company of assets owned by the South African Gupta family, to run a “hateful and divisive campaign” to stir up anti-white sentiments in South Africa. (Source; BIZ News, rtrvd.2017-10-13) Most of the details of the horrible activities are on public record (rtrvd. from New Statesman, 2017-09-15).
The end of the campaign and the fallout afterwards have been dramatic:
- Oakbay Resources and Energy, part of Oakbay Investments, stopped trading. “The JSE [Johannesburg Stock Exchange] on Friday, 23 June 2017, granted a request by Gupta-owned Oakbay Resources and Energy for a voluntary suspension of the listing of its securities‚ on a temporary basis‚ which will take place with immediate effect. Oakbay Resources had its accounts closed by the country’s largest banks and was abandoned by its external auditors KPMG and sponsor Sasfin. This followed the rising tide of disclosures about the Gupta family’s dealings in South Africa’s political and business spheres.” (Currently the company’s website is down and the redirect from LinkedIn does not work.)
- Bell Pottinger and Oakbay Investments parted ways and Bell Pottinger’s Chief Executive, James Henderson, apologized for what they had done – see a copy of their public statement of innocence below.
- On 5 Sept. 2017, Bell Pottinger was thrown out of the PR trade body, the Public Relations and Communications Association Limited (PRCA), in the UK. The contract between Bell Pottinger and Oakbay was worth an estimated £100,000 until the company resigned the account in April 2017. When the PRCA terminated Bell Pottinger’s membership, Director General Francis Ingham described it as “the worst piece of PR work I’ve seen in 10 years at the PRCA.”
Here Francis Ingham MPRCA, Director General, PRCA, explains the expulsion.
- Henderson confirmed his resignation on Monday [September 4, 2017], saying he “neither initiated nor was involved in the Oakbay work”.
- Bell Pottinger has itself now gone under. On 12 Sept. 2017, the BBC announced that “Bell Pottinger has collapsed into administration in the UK after running a racially charged PR campaign in South Africa. The troubled public relations firm put itself up for sale last week, but could not find a buyer. The administrators BDO said the firm had been ‘heavily financially impacted’ by the scandal.” (Source: BBC, rtrvd. 2017-10-13)
- And lastly, with the tar brush now sweeping far and wide, auditors KPMG has fired a couple of the senior managers of their South African office, after the completion of an internal investigation into the firm’s business dealings with the Guptas. On Sept. 15, 2017, KPMG announced that nine executives and partners will be leaving the firm, including KPMG South Africa’s chief executive, Trevor Hoole who had tendered his resignation to the board and stepped down. KPMG said in a statement that “…work done for Gupta family firms ‘fell considerably short of KPMG’s standards’”. (Source: Reuters, rtrvd. 2017-09-15) Andrew Cranston, a senior partner from the KPMG international network who will come in as interim chief operating officer for the South African business, said “KPMG South Africa regrets that its association with the Guptas and their business entities went on far too long.” (Source: Mail & Guardian, South Africa, rtrvd. 2017-09-15)
Why is Bell Pottinger in trouble?
It’s a long, ugly story, and even just mentioning any of it damns one by association. But, looking at this purely as a PR/communications fiasco, the facts are pretty clear and damning.
In any other country, this type of fake news and misinformation might not have been taken so seriously, but South Africa is a country with high illiteracy amongst its citizens, the majority of whom are very poor and not able to distinguish between real and fake news, high levels of corruption, and high tensions between black and white people, the whites being the minority of between 8.4% (2014) and 8.0% (2017) of the total population. Also, the term “white monopoly capital” is a dangerously loaded term, which most people would only use with extreme care.
The Gupta family’s strong ties to South African president Jacob Zuma, both personally and through its company Oakbay Investments, have been the subject of extensive international scrutiny and caused much political controversy. The ties have led to widespread claims of corruption, undue influence and of “state capture” – a term which is used to allege that the government undertakes activities and decisions, decides some high level appointments, and determines control of some state enterprises, for the Gupta family’s direct or indirect benefit, or in agreement with the family.
This is all public information and it is not as though Bell Pottinger’s people would not have known of it.
Bell Pottinger’s staff, acting on behalf of Oakbay Investments, deliberately manipulated and inflamed racial tensions, stirred up racial hatred, and made accusations of “white monopoly capital”, using a large number of fake Twitter and other online accounts, as part of a campaign to portray Oakbay and those connected to it as victims of the aforementioned “white-owned monopoly capital”, apparently intended to deflect corruption claims. The law firm Herbert Smith Freehills that was commissioned by Bell Pottinger to look into these allegations (as if they didn’t already know!) said in their review released on Monday, September 4, 2017, that:
“[Bell Pottinger’s] senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race. In such circumstances, BP ought to have exercised extreme care and should have closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign. This does not appear to have happened.”
Herbert Smith also found that certain material created by Bell Pottinger for the economic emancipation campaign “was negative or targeted towards wealthy white South African individuals or corporates and/or was potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive and was created in breach of relevant ethical principles”.
My take on it
Basically, there is no way that faking Twitter accounts and sending tweets full of racial hatred can be considered normal or legal. Just no way. These actions were intentional, and due to greed. The hashtag/whitemonopolycapital tweets were almost absurdly nasty and blatant. (I’m not linking to the account on purpose – I don’t want to add to the publicity.) Now, after this fiasco, the tweets are simply confused. Who do people believe now? There will be no corrections.
James Henderson’s excuse was that he was too high up and was misled. Hogwash. What a copout to blame the minions. Yes, the minions should have shouted “fire!” and run away but their managers would’ve known what was going on, and should have stopped doing it, or not even started with it. Bell Pottinger is (was) a huge firm with huge clients like governments and blue-chip corporations. From experience they would’ve known what they were doing. They had previously become embroiled in controversies. But they did not stop or step back and I am frankly aghast that people can be so utterly callous and cynical.
In my long career in marketing and PR, I remember well those moments when I smelled a rat and walked away from a job rather than do what was wrong but expected of me. There is a little sign on my bike trail that says, “it is better to be safe than to be right”. It’s true for bike riders crossing busy roads, but not for people doing PR. You’ve got to do what’s right, even if it would cost you your job.