Putting the puzzle together of how Bell Pottinger operates has become a fascinating activity here at BizNews. What is slowly emerging as the company was ripe for toxic clients like the Guptas. Bell Potts is now reaping the bitter fruit of the Indian immigrant family’s £100 000 a month largesse. The London-headquartered PR firm has lost clients and, to stem the bleeding, issued a “full, unequivocal, absolute” apology on the work it did for the Guptas. On Friday, a UK disciplinary hearing will be held into Bell Potts and its behavior in South Africa. The hearing is in camera, but the picture that is emerging is of a poorly managed business staffed with several loose cannons. This has been illustrated this week alone with one of Bell Pottinger’s employees, James Chapman — the Daily Mail’s former political editor and chief of staff to the arch-Brexiteer David Davis — in the spotlight for hundreds of tweets he posted about Brexit. There’s a flutter in the UK about Chapman targeting pro-Brexit Tory figures such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. He even attacked his former boss David Davis, accusing him of drunkenness and bullying. But Chapman is just one example of the strange staffing policies at this once respected UK agency. BizNews has discovered some interesting information about Bell Pots’ digital division, which was the overlord of the Guptas’ racially divisive social media campaign in South Africa. James Thomlinson, MD of this division (recently rebranded as Engage by Bell Pottinger) has many questions hanging over his head. Including whether he was the author of an internally produced “Hitler video” that unpacks the CEO’s apparent reaction to Bell Pottinger’s Q1 2016 results. This is the really ugly face of capitalism. Take a read, have a watch. – Gareth van Zyl
Tucked away in the Bell Pottinger company structure is a unit called ‘Engage’ which, upon first glance, may not jump out at you.
However, sources within the company tell BizNews that ‘Engage’ was created by Bell Pottinger in a bid to insulate the digital practice from any fallout from the Guptas.
This is because Bell Pottinger’s digital division oversaw the company’s social media campaign in South Africa for the Gupta-owned Oakbay.
While much of the focus in South Africa has been on Victoria Geoghegan, who headed up the Oakbay account and who Bell Pottinger has subsequently fired, little attention has as yet been paid to the role Bell Pottinger’s digital division played in South Africa.
Of all Bell Pottinger’s controversial work for the Guptas, the focus has been on allegations that the company was behind a nasty, digital propaganda campaign that tried to create the impression that Richemont chairman Johann Rupert controlled independent journalists like Biznews editor Alec Hogg, HuffPo’s Ferial Haffajee and Business Day’s Peter Bruce.
An army of fake Twitter accounts emerged around the time Bell Pottinger was appointed. These “bots” spewed out pro-Gupta propaganda and attacked critics of the Guptas.
Now, BizNews understands that while Geoghegan led the Oakbay account during this time, she and her team did not possess the digital or social media expertise to run the Guptas’ social media campaign.
For this task, Geoghegan tapped a peer, MD of the then digital division of Bell Pottinger, James Thomlinson, for help. Unlike Geoghegan, who was seven months pregnant when fired, Thomlinson still works at Bell Pottinger.
Thomlinson and his team are believed to have overseen the digital campaign and insiders say he personally outsourced the more negative social channels to another company.
Interestingly, Thomlinson is among Bell Pottinger employees who has also locked his Twitter account, a rather odd situation for the head of a digital division at a PR firm.
We sent a number of questions to Thomlinson via email asking for details on his division’s involvement with Oakbay and the Guptas’ digital campaign. Despite numerous requests, we’re yet to receive a response.
Thomlinson is a young high-flyer within Bell Pottinger and the PR industry in the UK. He was named in PR Week’s ‘29 under 29’ in 2014. He’s also been previously featured in a series of videos on DigitalGurus.co.uk.
Meanwhile, BizNews has emailed a number of companies which use the services of Thomlinson’s former division, now spun off as Engage by Bell Pottinger. Only one of these companies, Stannah Lifts Holdings, responded to say it had ditched the UK PR outfit.
Here are the other clients which have not responded to BizNews’ questions about Bell Pottinger and whether or not they are still employing the UK PR firm’s services:
Bank of Ireland
British Horseracing Authority
In the meantime, BizNews has also been pointed to an unflattering video produced internally at Bell Pottinger. It was produced on popular internet meme site CaptionGenerator.com and uses the popular ‘Hitler Reacts’ video template to poke fun at the pressure that Bell Pottinger employees are under in terms of winning new business.
BizNews understands that the clip was part of a Q1 2016 presentation by Bell Pottinger’s Financial & Corporate (F&C) team that was intended to be a tongue in cheek video on ‘advisor rates’ in which rival PR firm Brunswick is said to have been rated higher than Bell Pottinger.
The presentation formed part of a quarterly company meeting when each area of the Bell Pottinger business provide short presentations on recent activities and upcoming work.
BizNews further understands that the Hitler video was created internally by the digital team. The ‘Gavin Davis‘ referred to in the video was previously the MD of the F&C division. Victoria Geoghegan replaced Gavin when he joined Sky in the UK.
The video is meant to poke fun at Bell Pottinger boss James Henderson, but for outsiders, it also provides some perspective on the kind of pressures employees are put under.
Meanwhile, Bell Pottinger, interestingly, has also had South Africans working for the company, with one Saffer, former Isidingo star Leila Mountford having recently just left the PR firm…
Meet Leila Mountford: The Saffer Deep In Bell Pottinger’s Social Media Beast
Questions have also arisen in the UK about the role of South African Leila Mountford in Bell Pottinger’s campaigns in South Africa.
Mountford is a rising star in the UK public relations industry. After winning an industry award she was snapped up by Bell Pottinger and put to work on projects including promoting South African Tourism. She too worked for its Engage division.
But, Leila Mountford recently left Bell Pottinger, re-emerging at The Romans agency. This month, the UK’s PRWeek reported on ‘Bell Pottinger’s creative’ Leila Mountford joining The Romans as associate creative director.
“Before joining The Romans, Mountford spent two years at Bell Pottinger, latterly as associate creative director working within its new Engage by Bell Pottinger offering,” said PRWeek.
“The agency has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, culminating in the agency facing a series of probes over its work with Oakbay, the holding company for the Gupta family, which has ties with Jacob Zuma,” PRWeek added.
However, Romans boss Joe Sinclair told PRWeek that “Mountford had no involvement with Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay. At Engage, Mountford handled PR for clients including South African Tourism UK, Air France KLM and Yorkshire Bank.”
Leila Mountford, who studied drama in Cape Town, had a role as Nikki on SABC3’s Isidingo, according to reports, before studying public relations and communications at The University of Greenwich.
UPDATE: After facing off tweets in June this year from some angry South Africans about her role at Bell Pottinger, she responded with the following tweet:
If true that she is aware of @BP_Digital @BellPottinger strategy in SA, she MUST know that she has killed the dreams of millions.
Reply to above tweet:
I was not aware or involved in the work and since learning this I have resigned. I too love my country and only want the best for SA.