Bell Pottinger briefs law firm to audit work on South African account after allegations of stoking racial tensions

Bell Pottinger has commissioned a law firm to undertake an audit of all work it did for South African conglomerate Oakbay Investments, after allegations that it had done work to stoke racial tensions in the country.

UPDATE: Bell Pottinger has responded to initial findings of the law firm

In April, Bell Pottinger stopped work with the client after accusations in South African media and on social media of using racially divisive language as part of the corporate reputation brief. It was said to have been part of a political campaign involving Oakbay majority owners the Gupta family and the country's president Jacob Zuma.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson told PRWeek at the time that the various allegations were "completely untrue".

He said the firm was stepping back after just over 12 months on the account because it had "become the story so much so that it had become impossible to effectively represent that client", and that "abusive and threatening" comments made to staff on social media had also contributed to the decision to step away from Oakbay.

PRWeek has now learned that Bell Pottinger has briefed an international law firm to undertake an audit of everything that it did for its former client.

The agency hopes that this will provide an independent record of its actions, and allow it to answer and dismiss concerns about its work.

Bell Pottinger declined to name the lawyers involved. The law firm was briefed earlier this month, and is expected to deliver its report within weeks.

Twitter anger

Bell Pottinger, which held its summer party last night, has also protected its main @BellPottinger account on Twitter.

Protecting its tweets means that this means that new followers would have to been approved by the agency, and that nobody other than followers can see its tweets. Some individual employees have done the same.

The frequently visceral anger directed towards Bell Pottinger on Twitter, often using the #BellPottingerMustFall hashtag, has included threats of violence, insinuations of it having carried out violent acts, accusations of racism and comparisons with Josef Goebbels and the Nazis.

It is suggested by Twitter and Facebook users that increased racial divisions in South Africa would decrease the likelihood of Zuma, who has been accused of being excessively influenced by the Gupta family, being forced out of office.

There has been particular abuse directed at financial and corporate MD Victoria Geoghegan, who has been called "evil" and "bloodthirsty" by a number of Twitter users.

Bell Pottinger has also recently stopped working with the UK operation of South Africa Tourism. The agency told PRWeek it understood that this was "based on political reasons, following the gross misrepresentation of our work for former client Oakbay". The tourist board said that this had no bearing on the account being handed to another agency.

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