One of our readers sent us this article. The writer questions how a PR Firm that had managed to fight the worst reputational damage with scandals of its dirty tricks for former British Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, and its work for the US Pentagon in the Iraq War, could dwindle at being accused of “teaching” South Africans of economic emancipation. The answer lies in politics – more specifically the Democratic Alliance by way of Phumzile Van Damme and Mmusi Maimane. As for Oakbay, the writer says: at a princely sum of 100 000 British Pounds per month, you’ve been robbed.
Politics is a dirty game. Add to it Global PR Firms and the Media you get a major ish storm with its primary target being our brains.
Back in early 2010 a few months before the British general elections, British PM David Cameron made statements that must have gotten the so called lobby establishment seriously shook. These are the global PR firms and consultancies said to lobby politicians for staggering amounts of money for their clients to get to influence policies and shift MPs and political leaders in a certain direction on various issues imperative to them or their businesses. Yes you got that right. It is not the voter who gets a say in what policies see the light of day. No, your work is to put them there (voting cattle) so they can then use this station to make money, not just for themselves but in most cases their parties, through these wealthy individuals and companies, who then make the government work for them. The multimillion pound firms responsible for facilitating this are what is referred to as ‘lobby groups’ or lobbyists. A dignified label.
Now, David Cameron made a vow to shine a light and expose these and put the power to influence policy back where it belongs – in the hands of the public, the masses – and thus have the government work for the people who voted for it and not wealthy corporations and individuals.
He said he would double the amount of time required between someone leaving public office and being allowed to work as a lobbyist. This is because most, if not all of these people tend to be former MPs or senior government officials who have thus gained ‘access’ and ‘connections’, direct lines to people in senior circles who can make things happen for their clients.
Secondly he wanted to allow debates and voting in parliament of proposals and suggestions from the public based on the number of signatories a public member is able to garner in a petition espousing their idea. In basic terms, anyone can come up with a policy proposal and all they need to do is garner enough signatures in a petition and they are guaranteed to have their idea heard and voted on in parliament! Wait, that sort of renders lobbyists redundant in a way… doesn’t it? Not only that, it’s quite dangerous because these big clients of lobbyists often than not, through their financial patronage, push policies not necessarily in the public interest but their own. If the public is able to fight for these policies directly, based on just a number of signatures on a petition, it could be catastrophic for business all round, no?
What then seems to happen next is that about a month later in March 2010 a big scandal breaks involving an undercover operation by investigative journalists who uncover four Labour MPs willing to sell their access for a fee. They tell the undercover reporters posing as business representatives they are willing to get the right word to the right people for fees of about 5000 British Pounds per day. The scandal reverberates as calls to tame the lobbyists get louder.
What happens next is testament to the fascinating, willy wonky world of politics. In July of 2011 a sting operation is set up by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (Amabhungane reloaded) with one of its targets being none other than… Bell Pottinger! Now Bell Pottinger is very interesting because firstly, Lord Bell who co-founded it was a spin doctor/ PR for Margaret Thatcher (no less) and went on to be Knighted (hence the Lord title). That alone can make this quite an interesting outfit – no wonder the illustrious list of clients and former clients.
Secondly in the context of what we are talking about here because Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs is a former Conservative Party MP (Prime Minister David Cameron’s Party) and indeed during the sting he is said to have told the undercover journalists posing as representatives of the ‘repressive’ government of Uzbekistan that “I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through”.
So now what you have is a lobby firm linking David Cameron to the very same lobbying he is fighting!
To drive the knife even deeper on the secret recording done by the investigative journalists during that meeting, they are given a recent example of the influence BP executives have on the Prime Minister. One of the executives is said to mention a case in which a client of theirs, DYSON, had called them on a Friday afternoon to complain about the ripping off of their products by the Chinese. They ask that a word be sent to the Prime Minister to raise the issue with the Chinese Prime Minister whom he was meeting on the Saturday. Sure as day the matter is said to be raised with the Chinese PM by David Cameron. The expose’ is run on the front page of The Independent newspaper in December of 2011. At this point it’s not looking good for Bell Pottinger because the sting exposes a lot of their workings and the extents they are willing to go to for the right price. However, it is also not looking good for the Prime Minister who has publicly condemned and said to want to clean-up the lobbyist mess.
The stings and expose’s were sustained throughout 2012 and they got even much closer to home for David Cameron. In a Sunday Times article, a former Conservative Party employee, a Miss Southern, who worked for 7 years at the party office, claimed to have “spent more time in the first third of 2010 with DC than I did with anyone else in my life.” Her business cards are said to have a picture of her with the Prime Minister and she allegedly proposes a fee of 15000 British pounds for herself to facilitate access for an undercover reporter posing as a businessman. She further proposes a meeting with a Mr Cruddas, a wealthy businessman and the second largest donor of the Conservative Party according to the Sunday Times story, who goes on to tell them about all the weird and wonderful things their money can do for them in terms of levels of access to political power. Now we all know that David Cameron’s end finally came with the (ill-advised according to some) decision to hold a Brexit referendum. It is said that he believed he would win but he lost then resigned. Was perhaps his decision to hold the referendum his final act of defiance? Giving power back to the people as he had said? Look then at what the people said; ‘you know actually, contrary to what is purported to be popular belief, we want out of the EU!’ Something all those supposedly in the know never anticipated. It left them reeling, even today they have not recovered. As we speak Britain is seized with that process. This is politics.
Back to Bell Pottinger. Despite the humiliating and damaging expose’ in 2011 which put in the open their tactics, ethics and moral standing, not much seemed to move in terms of clients deserting or them being referred to relevant bodies for discipline. What seems to have started though was a process of self-cleansing. Not in a sense of apologising and coming clean. No. More in a sense of reputation salvaging. The Holding company which was formed by the same founders removes itself from the Bell Pottinger Branded PR entity which up until then was wholly owned by this holding company. It does retain 25% of the shares though. Some of the PR businesses are retained using the Good Relations brand. In fact some London based BP branches are said to have rebranded using the Good Relations brand, this is during 2012, hot on the heels of the Centre for Investigative Journalism revelations. Now the newly independent entity Bell Pottinger is flying solo with Lord Bell still at the helm.
In August of 2016 nearly 4 years later a major move happens. Lord Bell is said to resign as chairperson of Bell Pottinger. He is said to leave with some ‘key’ staff as well as retaining 7% of the company. He goes on to open a new consultancy Sans Frontiers. Two months later in October of 2016 a nuclear bomb type revelation is further made against Bell Pottinger’s operations ethics and conduct. It is reported that Bell Pottinger was retained to: “create fake terrorist videos, fake news articles aimed at Arab news channels.” This is during the War in Iraq you know the one with Al-Qaeda and alleged weapons of mass destruction that ended up not being there after all? Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Government get done with anyway? The very same one.
‘The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that the PR Firm Bell Pottinger, worked alongside top US military officials at Camp Victory in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War. The agency was tasked with creating TV segments in the style of unbiased Arabic News reports, videos of AL-Qaeda bombings that appeared to be filmed by insurgents and anti insurgent commercials – and those who watched the videos could be tracked by US forces ’ – The Independent.
It does not get more damaging than that for a PR firm.
Meantime in January 2016 Bell Pottinger had acquired a new client at the princely sum of 100 000 Pounds per month to:
1. Manage their PR and corporate communication (cleanup the image)
2. Launch a campaign called ‘Economic Emancipation’ meaning let the people in South Africa know/realise they need ‘economic emancipation’ because of course until that point (during 2016 ) no one had ever raised this matter and therefore the people did not realise they need it.
Now on the first point I really do not know what value Oakbay got looking at its reputation and public image laying in tatters. On the second point I believe if anyone should be given a prize for being the first to publicly drum the need for both land restitution and economic emancipation or Radical Economic Transformation and the need to end the ‘Economic Apartheid’, it must be Julius Malema and the EFF. Way, way before Bell Pottinger was hired by Oakbay in 2016! It’s a pity what has since transpired in the local body politic but that’s a matter for another day.
In the external report commissioned by Bell Pottinger to investigate the Oakbay account and what exactly was happening there, the same one which resulted in them apologising and a key partner responsible for the account being removed, it is found that: Greater effort at the beginning of the contract was placed on the first part of the mandate. It is only around September of 2016 that the second part of the brief, the Economic Emancipation campaign starts getting focus and even this the report states, seems to be limited to a Blog and a Twitter account none of which seem to garner much following with the twitter account peaking at 1000 followers. Concern is however raised at the content that was created by the firm. The report states : “Certain material that we have seen that was created for the 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.” The report further refutes the origin of ‘white monopoly capital’ term to have been as a result of Bell Pottinger (but of course we had already seen that being debunked spectacularly).
This is then the basis upon which the PR Company apologises and is suspended for 5 years from the PR practitioner’s body on the 4th September 2017. Yes people, not the messy expose’ of 2011 with its gory details, not even the nuclear bomb of its Iraqi operations revealed just in October of 2016. Nope.
Now, between you and me, given the company’s history and all that it can do, I find it hard to believe that it could not have easily fought this allegation of being accused of causing or being the reason for aggravating racial division in South Africa but it seems to have chosen not to, why? Well politics is a dirty game as I said in the beginning, we may never know.
We now have the DA in the public form of Pumzile VanDamme and Mmusi Maimane being shown to enter the fray around June/July 2017 (after ALL the above including the fact that Oakbay was no longer a client of BP, as far back as April) lodging a complaint with the UK regulatory bodies, being paraded as the David that killed Goliath. Never mind that the Goliath in this case is allowed to continue practicing despite not being part of the PRCA body. Anyway, why spoil a good story with facts? They claim easy victories for what, when looked at holistically, had precious little if anything at all to do with them. This is literally way bigger. But hey it’s good PR. Even if the firm was to close down today it actually means precious little if you really look at it.
As for Oakbay quite frankly if I were them, I would demand a refund. One hundred thousand British pounds a month from January 2016 to April 2017 when they were eventually dropped, is a lot of money! And for what really? A reputation in tatters and a feeble campaign that was quite frankly nothing more than an attempt to jump on an already moving bandwagon. Truth is they played with the big boys and got played, BIG time. Why did Bell Pottinger even take on this account? Maybe someone out there knows.