Bell Pottinger fires partner and apologises over 'economic emancipation' narrative for South African client

Bell Pottinger has dismissed partner Victoria Geoghegan (pictured) and suspended three further staff over "inappropriate and offensive" activity for a former client in South Africa, claiming the firm's senior management had previously been "misled" about its employees' work.

Bell Pottinger has come under pressure in the South African media and on social media in recent weeks over the firm's conduct in work for Oakbay Investments, a conglomerate whose owners the Gupta family have close links to the country's president Jacob Zuma.

In April, the agency stopped working with the client after 13 months, saying it had become a "political football" and citing abusive comments on Twitter. CEO James Henderson said at the time that allegations it had worked to stoke racial tensions in the country were "completely untrue".

Last week, PRWeek revealed the agency had hired an unnamed law firm to undertake an independent audit of the firm's activities on the account.

Days later, a South African opposition politician referred the agency to the PRCA and the CIPR, with the former having started the process that could lead to a full investigation. 

Today, the firm released a lengthy statement from Henderson announcing the sacking of Geoghegan, the partner who led on the account and has become a figure of hate for many in South Africa.

It revealed the law firm it had hired to be Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, and said it would publish its report "and take appropriate action" in the next few weeks.

"However, we have already been shown interim evidence which has dismayed us. Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep concern," the statement said.

Management 'misled'

The statement also claims Henderson and other senior figures at the agency were not aware of the true nature of Bell Pottinger's work in South Africa.

It says: "There has been a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive."

Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay is said to have tied "economic emancipation" to the suggestion that the country still exists in "economic apartheid" - this use and encouraging of historically-charged language by the agency has caused significant upset among South Africans. The agency is also said to have developed a narrative that Zuma's opponents were "agents of white monopoly capital."

The statement continues: "At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done.

"For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger."

Dismissals

"Though the inquiry is ongoing, we have dismissed the lead partner involved and suspended another partner and two employees so that we can determine their precise role in what took place. As soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately," Henderson's statement says.

While Geoghegan is not named, it has been confirmed to PRWeek that she is the "lead partner" to which this refers.

"At Bell Pottinger – a proudly diverse and international team – we have good, decent people who will be as angered by what has been discovered as we are.

"We wish to issue a full, unequivocal, and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened."

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