Gupta family PR campaign in South Africa: UK firm banned

The five-year ban imposed on Bell Pottinger by the Public Relations and Communications Association is expected to severely affect the company’s future.

world Updated: Sep 05, 2017 22:24 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Gupta family,South Africa,Bell Pottinger
An office building containing the London headquarters of the PR company Bell Pottinger is seen behind an entrance to an underground train station in London on September 5, 2017. (Reuters)

A UK industry body has banned Bell Pottinger, a PR and communications multinational, for conducting a campaign on behalf of the Indian-origin Gupta family in South Africa that reportedly raised racial tension in the country, sending ripples through the sector.

The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) said on Tuesday the company with offices in London and elsewhere had breached its code by the nature of its work for the family in South Africa. The unprecedented five-year ban is likely to severely affect the company’s future.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham said: “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions. The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”

The controversial Gupta family has been in the news in South Africa for its growing business interests and links with President Jacob Zuma. Bell Pottinger, which describes itself as a “leading integrated, international reputation management agency”, was hired to manage the Gupta narrative.

The ban, considered unprecedented for a firm of Bell Pottinger’s size, was announced after PRCA investigated a complaint from South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, that the firm sought to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid”.

The company was reportedly paid £100,000 a month by client Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the powerful Gupta family, which faces allegations of benefiting financially from close links to Zuma. Both have denied such a relationship.

The PRCA said in its ruling: “The targeting of white corporate South Africa is a material consideration here…The committee found that the nature of the programme depicted in the documents submitted to Oakbay Capital by Bell Pottinger, and as conducted by Bell Pottinger on Oakbay Capital’s behalf, was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that.”

The India-born Gupta family with roots in Uttar Pradesh has major business interests that include computer equipment, media and mining. Leading members of the family are reported to be brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta and Atul’s nephew Varun Gupta.

According to Ingham, while firms do not have to be a member of the PRCA to operate, it is the norm for respectable companies. Expulsion from the group could make it hard for the firm to continue.

“Pretty much every respectable agency is a member. It is seen as a requirement to trade, a stamp of ethical behaviour and professional practice. Having it taken away will significantly hurt (Bell Pottinger). It makes a very public statement – we do not believe it to be an ethical and professional PR agency,” he told The Guardian.

Some senior executives of the company have resigned, while there are reports that clients have either terminated their accounts or are in the process of doing so.

The National Union of Journalists welcomed the PRCA ruling. Phil Morcom, chair of the NUJ public relations and communications industrial council, said: “The NUJ firmly endorses the ruling against Bell Pottinger. Unethical behaviour in the public relations industry brings a stain on our profession.

“PR companies that actively mislead the public are not only unethical, they run the risk of being seen to be contaminated by their behaviour. The NUJ offers valuable support and protection to PR and communications workers who are prepared to stand up to pressure to behave unprofessionally and unethically.”

First Published: Sep 05, 2017 22:24 IST