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Yes, but punish those behind Bell Pottinger too

Sep 06 2017 06:00
Solly Moeng

Yay; I guess the whole of South Africa should be celebrating at last, right?

Wrong!

Bell Pottinger has finally been found guilty of flouting industry professional and ethical rules and given the boot with a five-year ban from membership of the UK’s PR and communications regulatory body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).

Its CEO James Henderson finally resigned on Monday, this after the earlier firing of four staff members who had been assigned to the South African campaign, including its key account manager and senior partner, Victoria Geoghegan.

The latter step, those of us who follow these things already knew, was a clumsy attempt at what I call “strategic amputation” - an act of placing blame at the door of disposable employees to save the agency from what we’ve known all along would be a massive reputational kick in the butt.

But it doesn’t stop there. Some of Bell Pottinger’s key clients began weeks ago to terminate their lucrative contracts with the agency; its founder, none other than Lord Timothy Bell, has also taken to throwing the agency he founded - and left more than a year ago - under the bus.

“I have a separate reputation as an individual in my own right,” he said in a recent interview. Keen to show that he’s astutely aware of the reputational ramifications of all of this, he added: “I stepped down because of their handling of the Gupta account.”

He didn’t deny, of course, that he had been involved in the early stages of the contractual discussions with Oakbay, the Gupta company which, officially, brought Bell Pottinger to South Africa. Like KPMG, Standard Bank, FNB, Nedbank, ABSA, VBS and, more recently, the Bank of Baroda, Lord Timothy Bell ran out of the Gupta kitchen as soon as he started smelling the reputational stink.

A Bell Pottinger campaign?

Now, in my many years of campaign experience, I have rarely - even possibly never - come across major campaigns named after the agencies that were commissioned and briefed to conceptualise them.

In the normal world, agencies remain behind the scenes and only step to the front stage when their campaign concepts get shortlisted for or win industry awards for their creativity. Campaigns are often named after the brands they’re developed to promote - the Coca-Cola campaign; the Samsung campaign; the Nandos campaign; the Woolworths campaign; the ANC’s electoral campaign; the EFF’s electoral campaign, etc - not in the name of the agencies that developed them.

So why are things different with this campaign? Is it to conveniently deflect scrutiny from the authors of the campaign brief?

Why are we not talking about an Oakbay Campaign? Also, given that much of the information that has since been unearthed points to this campaign having gone much broader than simply promoting Oakbay, the corporate brand, what is it that we’re not being told here?

Is it enough to simply go back home and watch TV while eating popcorn, gleefully oblivious to all the missing information needed to help us understand the bigger picture of what was really at play, or should we join the DA, Save SA and OUTA, and keep digging until the whole truth is revealed?

Only total disclosure will lay this saga to rest

For me, this Bell Pottinger saga is not over until it’s over. No doubt, it’s good that the agency’s conduct has been dealt with by the PRCA, from an ethical basis. That is one side of the story. The other side of the story is to fully understand why it was unleashed on us, and if the authors of its actions might be working on other plans to finish what Bell Pottinger couldn’t.

It’s almost as if we chased potential thieves out of the gate in the middle of the night and went back to sleep, leaving the gates wide open, despite clear signs that the attempted robbery might have been an inside job.

In our case, the insiders stood among us and feigned anger when we saw the thieves off, then returned into the house with us, their treacherous arms over our shoulders. The truth is that we remain vulnerable from whatever trick they spring on us next, while we sleep.

The DA did an excellent job and deserves praise for pursuing Bell Pottinger all the way to the UK. Both it and Save SA are doing the right thing to insist that this is not over until it’s over. OUTA is also correct to join them in this long walk to the truth, and so should we all.

Without insisting on a full disclosure, we’d all be complicit in harbouring the insiders who, driven by greed and irrational racial hatred, have demonstrated that they’re prepared to go to any lengths to bring South Africa to the brink of ethnic cleansing and a possible race war.

It is therefore good to see the organisations listed above picking up on the questions below:   

  • What were the details of the Oakbay brief to Bell Pottinger?
  • Who conducted the brief and signed their contract?
  • Who were their monthly progress reports given to and discussed with, supposedly in exchange for monthly disbursements?
  • What were the details of these progress reports? Can they be made public?
  • What was the nature of their relationship with TV channel ANN7 and The New Age newspaper?
  • Who else – individuals and organisations - was scripted to communicate the approved campaign messages and what were their performance indicators?
  • Did they channel money to individuals and groups linked to and scripted on key campaign messages, e.g. white monopoly capital?

Despite the ANC’s decision to stop using the racially divisive “white monopoly capital” slogan at its policy conference - ostensibly because delegates understood the danger it posed for national harmony – its president and his clique of supporters continue to use this term.

This is the same term that was at the core of the campaign driven by Bell Pottinger; the Oakbay Campaign. This is irrespective of Mr Zuma being our country’s Number One citizen, and the man whose job it is to keep our diverse people together and from racially mauling one another.

Why are other leaders failing to denounce this conduct?

Bell Pottinger is unlikely to return to South Africa ever; but it is the least of the devils. The devil we should fear the most is the satisfied group of clients who paid it for a job apparently well done for more than a year.

It would be premature to lower our collective guard before we unmask the authors of this madness and know what their end game was. Otherwise, our beautiful country remains exposed.      

  • Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley. Views expressed are his own.

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bell pottinger  |  solly moeng  |  opinion  |  state capture

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