Arun Sudhaman 06 Jul 2017 // 4:59PM GMT
LONDON — Bell Pottinger has dismissed corporate and financial MD Victoria Geoghegan one week after hiring a law firm to investigate its controversial PR work for the Gupta family in South Africa, which has since spiralled into a scandal that has engulfed the PR firm.
In a statement, Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson added that the firm has suspended three other executives who worked on the Oakbay Capital assignment under Geoghegan, after finding evidence of "a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive." Henderson declined to name the three executives who have been suspended.
The audit of the firm's Oakbay contract is being carried out by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, three months after Bell Pottinger resigned the account amid a sustained backlash over its role in developing a narrative that sought to portray President Zuma's opponents as agents of 'white monopoly capital.'
"It’s a source of great sadness for me," Henderson told the Holmes Report. "At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done. For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger."
"As soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately," added Henderson in the statement. "At Bell Pottinger – a proudly diverse and international team – we have good, decent people who will be as angered by what has been discovered as we are. We wish to issue a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened."
Henderson told the Holmes Report that Herbert Smith's report will be published in the coming weeks. "Hopefully now we are fully cleansed and our clients will see I take ethical issues very seriously."
He also noted that the firm had closed down its geopolitical division and will no longer carry out assignments of this nature again. Geoghegan, who has spent more than a decade with Bell Pottinger, led the Oakbay assignment and has become a target of fierce criticism in South Africa.
Leaked emails allegedly show Bell Pottinger executives promoting a narrative of "economic apartheid" in the country, in a bid to rebut criticism of Oakbay, the holding group controlled by the Guptas, and linked closely to President Zuma.
The firm's work is also being investigated by the PRCA, after South Africa's Democratic Alliance lodged a formal complaint with the UK trade body.