Imagine you own a large and successful plumbing and sanitation company. You decide to go big with the launch of your new corporate headquarters. You invite your major clients and the media to the event.

Then, moments after the event commences, disaster strikes. In full view of the assembled dignitaries, the pipes burst, spewing water all over the guests. Worse soon follows. Something goes wrong with your state-of-the-art sewerage system and a rank odour permeates the entire building, forcing all the guests to leave. Your business is pretty much ruined and you are in need of a massive reputation overhaul to repair your brand, along with the new building.

Something similar just happened to the global corporate public relations firm Bell Pottinger. Its perceived area of expertise was building and promoting and, where necessary, restoring corporate brands for companies and individuals. It was none too fussy about its clients. Included on the list was the pitiless Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the wife of Syrian mass murderer and head of state Bashar al-Assad and the authoritarian rulers of Belarus.

But it was Bell Pottinger’s entanglement with Saxonwold’s most infamous family, the Guptas, and their hangers-on that has caused the London-based PR gurus to go, like our plumbing company, from hero to zero. Except which PR company can be called on to fix the image of a PR company?

It is perhaps unwise for corporate image-builders to take on dodgy clients, but lawyers will tell you that even the most unsavoury of their clients are entitled to the best legal defence. Perhaps the same pertains in PR. But it moves from unwise to disastrous when your work and the methods you employ become the stuff of scandal and outrage.

It is also now clear that, like the opposite of King Midas, everything the Guptas touch or whoever touches them is turned to ash, or more aptly the stuff coming out of the burst sewer of our plumbing company friends, mentioned earlier.

Strangely enough, Bell Pottinger established its credentials when its founder, Lord Tim Bell, charmed the famously difficult British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. He managed her image and his first client in South Africa, directly as a result of that imaging, was the National Party of FW de Klerk in the 1994 general election. Of course, De Klerk lost that one big-time, but Bell Pottinger, ever alive to the change of political wind they had not averted, found themselves on the other side two decades later. Now they acted for Jacob Zuma’s son and his enablers, the Gupta-owned Oakbay company.

This might have been financially profitable – at a cool R1.5-million a month retainer – but it has proven, in all other respects, calamitous.

Admittedly, Lord Bell has left the firm he founded and offered this weekend the insight that he warned Bell Pottinger not to touch the Guptas with the proverbial bargepole. But more than touch them Bell Pottinger did. It used, apparently, fake news, invented Twitter handles and worse, to spew a message of racial poison in the murky waters of South Africa’s life-and-death struggle between the corrupt state capturers and their hosts on the one side, and the broad swathe of civil society on the other.

But it was Thatcher who, many years ago – around the time Bell Pottinger handled her image – provided the wisest advice.

“Before you win the vote, you’ve got to win the argument,” said the Iron Lady.

Well, Bell Pottinger, far from winning any votes for its clients, is on the losing side of all the arguments. Even in the hitherto Zuma-friendly ANC policy conference, the delegates rejected the Bell Pottinger-inspired slogan of “white monopoly capital” as a handy explanation for everything that has gone pear-shaped in the beloved country.

I have found in my recent experience of chairing a communications company that the most important message you can give your clients is about the mortal danger of contradicting yourself.

The adage “don’t tread on your own message” has a lot of wisdom attached to it.

Bell Pottinger managed to not just tread on its own message, but to mangle it too.

Now that the PR company itself is in the headlines across the world, it turns out that its first admissions in May this year that it was not involved in smearing Gupta opponents, using race politics and disinformation, were false.

So now, to save its ship, the captain, in this case chief executive James Henderson, has fired staff and instituted an independent legal inquiry. He also offered an apology for the means used to convey the Gupta campaign and some of the messaging of it.

How and where all this ends up for a once globally respectable firm is an open question. Perhaps the fate of what was once the most admired firm of chartered accountants in the world, Arthur Andersen, is relevant. It had certified the accounts of the leading energy company of the time, Enron. Then it was found that Enron was mired in corrupt practices and the accountants blamed some of the local partners for the mishap. But, within a year or two, Arthur Andersen had collapsed.

I doubt that – apart from one or two families in Saxonwold and Nkandla – many South Africans will lose sleep over the fate of a London-based PR firm. But ironically the same firm has, quite accidentally, performed an enormous public service in advertising the health of South Africa’s democracy. It’s not in the intensive care unit where some of our rulers and masters wished to consign it.

Several articles have appeared in the international media on the Bell Pottinger-Gupta saga. Geoffrey York in The Globe and Mail of Toronto captured the essence of it.

Having noted the roll call of tyrants and tyrannies for whom Bell Pottinger has acted, he drew an influential and important distinction between those jurisdictions and our own.

York writes: “Unlike the authoritarian regions where Bell Pottinger often worked, South Africa has a thriving democracy and a vibrant media and civil society sector that could fight back against the foreign-orchestrated campaign.”

The Guptas and their agents, at home and abroad, have used some of the darkest arts to advance their dubious cause and disparage all who stand in their way. But the exposé of their disinformation campaign and the public shaming of those responsible has illuminated the massive roadblock that stands in their way.

  • Featured in The Times