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Bell Pottinger considers selling as pressure mounts

Sep 06 2017 14:05
Yolandi Groenewald

Johannesburg - Public relations firm Bell Pottinger said on Wednesday it was contemplating a sale to resolve its woes.

The firm told Fin24 it was presently considering "all options".  

The public relations consulting firm, whose chief executive James Henderson resigned on Monday, confirmed that it had hired accounting and consulting firm BDO to look at the options.

“These options include a sale but all options are being considered,” a spokesperson for the embattled firm said.  

Other options included establishing a new board and management structure that will operate independently of the ownership of the business. 

The potential sale follows reports that some of the firm’s biggest investors, along with a growing list of corporate clients, were abandoning the firm after it was kicked out of the UK-based Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) on Monday.

The PRCA found that Bell Pottinger had "brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute" with the potentially racially divisive campaign it created for the Gupta-owned company Oakbay Capital in late 2016 and early 2017. 

Several managers have also handed in their resignation.

Chime Communications, co-owned by advertising giant WPP and Providence Equity Partners, returned its 27% stake in the London-based PR firm without compensation about two weeks ago.

Meanwhile Bloomberg reported that at least one partner has left the firm since Chime returned its stake. Other clients, including banking giant HSBC and construction firm Carillion also announced that they were dumping the firm.

Bell Pottinger declined to comment on the reports of clients leaving, saying it could not go into specifics. 

The news that the group may put itself up for sale follows a harrowing week for what had been one of the UK's best-known public relations agencies. 

On Monday, the damning findings of a review of Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay, carried out by international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, were published. The law firm concluded that the PR company's South African campaign was “potentially racially divisive” and breached ethical principles.

Henderson resigned on the same day, saying he felt “deeply let down” by Bell Pottinger colleagues whom, he claimed, misled him about the content of the Oakbay account.

On Tuesday, the PRCA announced its sanction of Bell Pottinger, saying it would not be eligible to reapply for corporate membership of the PRCA for a minimum period of five years.

Bell Pottinger, meanwhile, said it would continue to follow the code of conduct of the UK PR regulatory body “on a voluntary basis”.

The PRCA report followed an earlier complaint by the DA into Bell Pottinger’s contentious campaign to represent Oakbay and the Gupta family.

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