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Bell Pottinger in South Africa: PR firm 'inflamed racial discord'

Bell Pottinger has been sanctioned amid allegations it deliberately stoked racial tensions in South Africa. The controversial PR firm's clients include Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and the Pinochet Foundation.

Bell Pottinger, one of the UK's largest public relations firms, was expelled from the country's trade body on Monday, after a committee found that one of its campaigns was "likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that."

Britain's Public Relations and Communications Associations (PRCA) found that the firm played on South Africa's still-sensitive race-relations as part of a campaign in support of President Jacob Zuma. The campaign portrayed Zuma's opponents as agents of "white monopoly capital."

Read more: South Africa's land reform - a never-ending story

Announcing Bell Pottinger's five-year suspension from the trade body, PRCA Director General Francis Ingham said the PR firm's actions in South Africa were "completely reprehensible."

"I haven't seen work of this nature at any point in the past and I hope never to see it again in the future," he said. "The view of the PRCA board was that Bell Pottinger's actions were deliberately intended to create exactly the result they did - stirring up racial hatred in a very sensitive area of the world."

Phumzile Van Damme of the Democratic Alliance

Phumzile Van Damme of the Democratic Alliance campaigned in London outside the Bell Pottinger headquarters

The complaint against Bell Pottinger was first brought forward by South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which accused it running a "divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race" and "promoting economic apartheid."

The campaign was carried out on behalf of Oakbay Capital, a holding company run by South Africa's Gupta family, which is accused of boasting undue influence in the country's political circles.

No stranger to controversy, Bell Pottinger has a list of controversial clients, including Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and the Pinochet Foundation, which promotes the life and legacy of the former Chilean dictator.

Suspended

PRCA head Ingham accused Bell Pottinger of bringng the industry "into disrepute with its actions," adding that the trade body had "never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency's behavior."

The suspension comes at no direct financial cost to the firm, which will, in theory, be able to continue operating as usual. However, "they will be doing so with the impact of significant reputational damage," the PRCA's Matt Cartmell said.

"The potential impact on them is large because they've been publicly expelled from the PRCA as a result of their activities," Cartmell added.

Reacting to the decision, Bell Pottinger admitted that there were lessons to be learned from the campaign, but disputed "the basis on which the ruling was made". The firm has initially appealed against the decision, which was first made in August, only to see the appeal thrown out by the PRCA's board of management.

Founder speak out

While the firm will be allowed to continue with business as usual, the ruling could force the firm to dramatically refocus its operation or even shut down in an industry that trades on reputation.

Bell Pottinger co-founder Tim Bell told the BBC on Monday that it was "almost certainly" curtains for the firm, adding that "you can try and rescue it but it won't be very successful."

Bell refused to take any responsibility for the campaign saying that, when he resigned in August last year, he had given the Gupta account as one of his reasons for leaving.

The firm's chief executive James Henderson resigned on Monday, saying he was leaving so the firm could "fix the problems of the past and move forward."

"Whilst I had no involvement in the account, there were warning signs that I should have heeded. Therefore I must take responsibility," he said.

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dm/rc (Reuters, AFP)

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