Bell Pottinger agrees six-point plan as lawyers say economic apartheid campaign 'arguably breached ethical principles'

A report by lawyers into Bell Pottinger's controversial activities in South Africa points the finger at senior management at the agency, saying they "should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence".

Meanwhile, Bell Pottinger, which confirmed the resignation of its CEO this morning - has agreed to undertake a six-point programme to improve its ethical standards following the crisis (see end of story).

Bell Pottinger (BP) commissioned the report two months after it said it had stopped working for Oakbay Investments, a conglomerate with links to South African president Jacob Zuma. The agency had been the subject of much anger in South Africa for allegedly working to promote racial tensions in the country.

Initial findings of the report were cited as the reason for the sacking of a Bell Pottinger partner and suspension of three others.

HSF said that it had "considered over 45,000 documents and interviewed a significant number of witnesses" in preparing its report, which amounts to a little more than 1,000 words.

Economic emancipation campaign

Its first finding is that Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay "included two principal work streams", corporate comms and "promoting a narrative around the existence of 'economic apartheid' and the need for more 'economic emancipation'". It says that the team undertaking corporate comms work "spent increasing amounts of time on the economic emancipation campaign from around September 2016".

It finds that a "key part" of the economic emancipation campaign was the creation of a blog and Twitter account, which is unnamed in the report and which Bell Pottinger declined to name when contacted, which "peaked at around 1,000 followers". However, it says that HSF had not "seen any evidence to suggest that, as has been alleged, the BP account team used or instructed others to use so-called Twitterbots in the promotion of the economic emancipation campaign".

"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," it continues, adding that the term "white monopoly capital" was used by the Bell Pottinger team, but was not invented by the agency.

'Arguable' ethical breach

It adds: "In addition, we have seen evidence that the BP account team used other tactics in relation to the economic emancipation campaign, which arguably breached the relevant ethical principles, including taking steps which might mislead or undermine journalists who were asking questions in relation to the campaign."

The final section of the report says that Bell Pottinger had not exercised sufficient care and scrutiny, given how controversial its client was known to be. It also notes that the economic emancipation campaign was undertaken primarily by corporate comms specialists, rather than those with geopolitical expertise.

While it says that it did not find evidence that the agency's senior management knew about this campaign, there were "a series of opportunities for certain members of senior management to discover these matters which were missed".

Despite saying that senior management may not have known about the campaign, and that some tactics "arguably breached the relevant ethical principles", it says: "While we do not consider that it was a breach of relevant ethical principles to agree to undertake the economic emancipation campaign mandate per se, members of BP's senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race."

Six-point plan

In a preface to the report, Bell Pottinger says it "does not believe that the actions taken in relation to this account are representative of the way it works in general".

But it says it was "determined to learn lessons from this review, take appropriate action and instigate all necessary measures to ensure that the agency meets the highest ethical and industry standards which it has always endeavoured to uphold".

The agency said it would:

  1. Implement a more formal and robust engagement committee review of any new client work, or substantial work for an existing client, including the ability to monitor on-going matters by way of spot checks. This will allow Bell Pottinger to identify high risk clients and high risk mandates and ensure that they are monitored and managed more closely.
  2. Put in place further training of employees and Partners on social media engagement. The company's training programme in general will be updated and completion of training will be linked to the formal appraisal process. Engagement of third parties or other suppliers to carry out social media work will also only occur with sign-off from senior management.
  3. Redevelop and re-issue Bell Pottinger’s corporate policies in a new employee handbook. A detailed corporate social media policy will also be developed to address rules of engagement for social media work for clients.
  4. Develop an ethics committee to separate the consideration of engaging clients from the consideration of wider ethical questions. The committee would also look at how ethics impact upon all relevant stakeholders and develop an ethics training programme for all staff.
  5. Engender a culture whereby junior employees at Bell Pottinger feel able to challenge work with which they feel uncomfortable. This would be separate to Bell Pottinger's existing whistleblowing policy and aim to encourage employees to come forward outside of that formal whistleblowing process.
  6. Introduce other actions as necessary as the changes outlined above are introduced.

Read next: Bell Pottinger CEO's resignation note

Also: Bell Pottinger and beyond: does the PR industry have an ethical problem?

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