Public relations multinational firm Bell Pottinger has recently been caught up in a controversial scandal which relates to their representation of the Gupta family in South Africa (Financial Times article). The firm has been accused of stirring up racial tensions through social media which is deemed dangerous since the country is still struggling with the legacy of apartheid. This recent scandal has had a huge reputational damage to the British PR firm. Although the firm ended their contract with the Guptas in April, the damage had already been done. This followed a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions with the aim of deflecting attention from the Guptas family business troubles. Max du Preez, a journalist, described this move as a knife being thrust into an old wound considering that South Africas democracy is still fragile with the effects of apartheid not completely buried. This paper will analyze the ethical violations committed by Bell Pottinger from a professional perspective.
In early 2016, the Gupta family signed a contract with the Bell Pottinger to work on the public relations for their family business, Oakbay. This was after their family reputation was stained all over South Africa after many scandals were unveiled concerning their corrupt business deals and their deep political connections especially with President Jacob Zuma who allegedly has a record of corruption associated with his administration. The Gupta family has accumulated vast wealth and influence since their arrival in South Africa in the early 1990s when apartheid ended. The family is accused of directing Zumas decisions to their benefit (Financial Times article). Zumas son, Duduzane is said to have been involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal with the Guptas to help defend the family brand. All these were issues of concern, but the biggest crisis over Bell Pottinger was on the way it conducted the campaigns since it violated ethical requirements. These violations relate to the fake twitter accounts, the lies and propaganda spread through these accounts and the White Monopoly Campaign which was a major tool aimed at creating distractions from the critics of Gupta family and the government.
The strategy set to reinstate the Oakbay business for the Guptas family involved ethically unaccepted activities (Coombs and Holladay, 2013). The strategy involved targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests, and the capturing of political leaders by luring them into lucrative deals to keep them under the control of the Guptas. Twitter users were paid to troll journalists or to spread propaganda. A website for the White Monopoly Campaign Leaks was created which proceeded to smear some of the top South Africas editors who were critics of the familys dealings. Some of the journalists were constantly surveilled and even vandalized. This information was gathered after a massive email leak from inside the Gupta Empire in May. Bell Pottinger was accused of creating fake social media profiles that amplified attacks on opponents of the Guptas and President Zuma. Although the firms chief executive, James Henderson claims that he was misled about the contract, the former chairman, Lord Bell, claims that the current management was aware of the risks of representing the family from the beginning. Bell Pottinger has also represented other cases in the past that turned out controversial such as the Pinochet Foundation and the Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko, among others. This is to say that they are not new to controversies.
The White Monopoly Capital campaign is one big ethical violation by Bell Pottinger and their client, the Guptas. Mr. Hendersons continued decline of knowledge about actions by their client does not seem to convince the people of the firms innocence. Chris Vick, a South African public relations specialist says that it is not possible that the top people at Bell Pottinger were unaware of what was going on. The WMC campaign together with the fake twitter accounts was used to criticize the opponents of Gupta family and Zuma claiming that they were being used by the wealthy white. The term was spread widely on social media and even in political speeches linked with Guptas. They claimed that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africas progress. These remarks were deemed dangerous, causing racial tensions and anger to the poor and other people who experience the cruelty of poverty and the inequality that is present in the country between the majority black community and the white folks. A former chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, accused the company of playing the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection. Bell Pottinger was forced to change its twitter account into private account after thousands of these tweets were sent to them by angry citizens. They later in this month, July, offered an apology (Financial Times article) with Mr. Henderson acknowledging that the social media campaign was inappropriate and offensive. He concludes that these activities should never have been undertaken. There have been calls for the firm to appear before the countrys parliament and for criminal prosecutions.
This case puts Bell Pottinger at a possible prosecution following the UK Bribery Act 2011, an anti-money laundering and anti-corruption law that demands worldwide compliance of firms (Yeoh, 2011, p. 37-53). According to the executive director of Africa Risk Consulting Tara OConnor, if multinationals have even a single director in the UK, as in the case of Bell Pottinger, they are potentially at a risk of facing legal actions in the terms of the Act. In light of this, Bell Pottinger could be prosecuted for alleged knowledge or complicity in an attempted bribery of one South African state official, the then Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, by Guptas family. The Democratic Alliance also claimed that Bell Pottinger could also face a disciplinary hearing by the Public Relation and Communications Association in the UK, following the partys complaint against the firm that it sowed racial divisions in South Africa. This has ended up sour for both the service provider, Bell Pottinger, and the client, Gupta family and their Oakbay business.
In summary, public relation firms can be caught up in ethical violation scandals if they are not keen on observing their limits in delivering services to their clients. The Gupta family is one characterized with scandals, and Bell Pottingers agreement to represent them can be termed as a not-a-very-wise decision. Their strategies to win back their reputation were corrupt and only made things worse for their business and Bell Pottinger, making the latter lose lucrative clients who had been in business with them for a long time. This crisis can be taken as a lesson to other public relations agencies to learn their client before they sign to represent them and to be thoughtful on methods that will yield better results for all stakeholders.
Coombs, W.T. and Holladay, S.J., 2013. It's not just PR: Public relations in society. John Wiley & Sons.Financial Times article: Bell Pottinger reputation muddied by South African Scandal
Yeoh, P., 2011. The UK Bribery Act 2010: contents and implications. Journal of Financial Crime, 19(1), pp.37-53.
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