'I kept saying it was smelly': Lord Bell claims Bell Pottinger ignored his concerns over Gupta work

Bell Pottinger co-founder Lord Bell says he was "completely ignored" by management when he raised concerns about the firm's work with South African conglomerate Oakbay - claims the agency denies.

Bell Pottinger last week announced the dismissal of partner Victoria Geoghegan and the suspension of three other employees over work done for Oakbay Investments.

The firm also apologised for what it said was "offensive" campaigning around the concept of 'economic apartheid' in the country, which has been viewed by many South Africans as orchestrated to strengthen the position of president Jacob Zuma, an associate of the Guptas.

In that statement, the company's chief executive, James Henderson, said management had been "misled" about the nature of the account. He had previously told PRWeek it was a corporate reputation brief and that there had been a "gross misrepresentation" of its role.

Bell, who left the firm last year, told PRWeek that the idea that Henderson was not aware of the nature of the work was "rubbish".

"He is the chief executive for God’s sake, it’s his job to know what is going on," Bell said.

Loss of clients

Lord Bell himself met employees of Oakbay and its owners, the Gupta family, in South Africa in early 2016, before the agency began work on the account.

Bell said he then warned others in the business that taking the brief would be bad for Bell Pottinger, but that colleagues "completely ignored me".

Bell said: "I kept saying it was 'smelly' – I told [chairman] Mark Smith it was smelly, I told [international managing partner] David Beck and James Henderson that it was smelly, and they ignored it."

Bell spent several months in the middle of the year away from the company due to illness, before announcing he would leave Bell Pottinger in August. He said the work with Oakbay was one of the reasons for his departure.

The firm has stopped working with investment firm Investec and mining group Acacia in recent months, and with luxury goods firm Richemont last year. The loss of all three has been reportedly due to concerns over Bell Pottinger's Oakbay work. Richemont and Investec were both founded in South Africa, and Acacia operates across Africa.

Bell Pottinger contested Bell's claims, but declined to provide a comment. The firm also declined to comment on the loss of the trio of clients.

Bell also said that Geoghegan should not be considered a scapegoat for the company, as he was reported as telling the Financial Times, because this would suggest she had done nothing wrong. He said Geoghegan should be seen as "the fall guy – or the fall girl".

Geoghegan, who is seven months pregnant and was due to go on maternity leave at the time of her sacking, declined to comment on the advice of lawyers.

The PRCA is looking into a complaint about Bell Pottinger's conduct, made by South African political party Democratic Alliance. The DA also complained to the CIPR, which is working to ascertain whether any of its members were involved in the work. Both bodies have declined to comment on the ongoing process.

Bell Pottinger's apology has been rejected by the DA and other groups and parties in South Africa, including Zuma's ANC. The DA has suggested that Bell Pottinger donate its fees for the account, which were initially £100,000 a month, to a charity in the country.

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