Bell Pottinger

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BPP Communications Ltd.
(trading as Bell Pottinger Private)
Private limited company
Industry Communications
Founded 1998 (London)
Headquarters London, United Kingdom
Key people
Lord Bell (Chairman)
David Beck and David Wilson
(Joint Managing Directors)[1][2]
Services Public relations
Revenue £137.7 million (2010)[3]
Number of employees
300 (2015)
Subsidiaries Pelham Bell Pottinger
Website bell-pottinger.co.uk

Bell Pottinger Private (legally BPP Communications Ltd.; informally Bell Pottinger) is a British multinational public relations and marketing company headquartered in London, United Kingdom.

Bell Pottinger offers services such as lobbying, speech writing, search engine optimisation to clients including companies, governments and rich individuals.[4]In 2010 Pelham Public Relations, a financial public relations business, merged with Bell Pottinger Corporate and Financial.[5] It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income.[3]

Bell Pottinger has been criticised numerous times for edits that the company has made on Wikipedia pages that involve or are about their clients.

The company was hired by the Pentagon to work in Iraq against the interests of al-Qaeda for the reported sum of $540m.[6] A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said the company made fake terror and news-style videos, which would then be used to track those accessing them.

The firm has been described as having "the most controversial client list" in the PR industry.[7]

Bell Pottinger was, until July 2012, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chime Communications plc. Lord Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger.[8]

In June 2012, Lord Bell and Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson completed a £19.6m MBO from Chime, with Chime retaining a 25% stake in the business.[9]

Bell Pottinger Private acquired Centreground Political Communications Limited, founded by former Tony Blair adviser Darren Murphy, in June 2014.[10] In September that year, the company launched a new service aimed at the luxury sector.[11]

History[edit]

Bell Pottinger's origins go back to 1985, when Bell and Frank Lowe founded Lowe Bell as a subsidiary of Lowe Howard-Spink. Bell and Piers Pottinger bought out Lowe Bell in 1989, and it was subsequently floated in 1994 as Chime Communications plc but retained the name Lowe Bell on some of its subsidiary companies. In 1998, the subsidiaries were renamed as Bell Pottinger after Frank Lowe demanded that his name be removed.[12] In 2000 the Bell Pottinger Group acquired Harvard Public Relations and QBO, which was renamed Bell Pottinger Public Relations.[13] In 2001 Bell Pottinger acquired MMK in Germany and also The Smart Company, which was merged into Corporate Citizenship when the Group acquired it in 2007.[14][15] In 2003 Resonate, a consumer public relations company was set up.[16] In 2004 Bell Pottinger Communications USA was launched and in 2005 Bell Pottinger Middle East was launched with offices in Bahrain in 2009.[17][18] In 2009 Bell Pottinger Change & Internal Communications was launched[19] and Ptarmigan in Leeds was acquired by the Bell Pottinger Group.

In May 2012, it was reported that Lord Bell had agreed a £20m deal to buy most of the Bell Pottinger branded PR businesses from Chime, with Chime retaining a 25% stake in the venture and a seat on the board.[20] The MBO was completed on 30 June 2012 with BPP Communications (Bell Pottinger Private) trading as an independent business from 1 July 2012.[21] Chime retained the Good Relations group of PR businesses, including Harvard, Corporate Citizenship, MMK and Ptarmigan, and some UK regional offices formerly branded as Bell Pottinger were rebranded to Good Relations.[22]

The Bell Pottinger Group had been ranked number one in the PRWeek and Marketing magazine league tables.[23][24]

Operations[edit]

Bell Pottinger has offices in London, North America, the Middle East and south-east Asia. It offers consumer, corporate and financial, healthcare, technology, industrial, public affairs, public sector, corporate social responsibility, internal communication, crisis and issues management services.[25]

The Bell Pottinger Private Group includes Pelham Bell Pottinger, Bell Pottinger Public Relations, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Middle East (offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi),[26][27] and Bell Pottinger USA.[28]

Bell Pottinger donated £11,900 to the Conservative Party in the twelve months to September 2011.[29]

The company plans to enable clients to attempt to influence European Union legislative processes by organizing participation in "European Citizens' Initiatives", a mechanism intended for grassroots involvement.[30]

Notable clients[edit]

Criticism[edit]

On 6 December 2011, the British national newspaper The Independent ran a front page story based on covert filming by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which the paper claimed revealed executives from Bell Pottinger boasting of ways in which they burnished the reputations of countries accused of human rights violations.[4] Posing as representatives of a fake investment body linked to the Uzbekistan government, the journalists had filmed a presentation at which Bell Pottinger executives explained techniques used on behalf of their clients. At one point, Tim Collins of Bell Pottinger—who has close connections with Prime Minister David Cameron, Edward Llewellyn, and Steve Hilton—had referred to "dark arts".[81]

It was also reported that senior executives at Bell Pottinger told the undercover reporters that they had written a key speech given by the Sri Lankan President to the United Nations, in which he had described military action against Tamil Tiger separatists as "humanitarian".[82][83] During a meeting with reporters, David Wilson—the chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations—had stated: "We had a team working in the President's office. We wrote the President's speech to the UN last year which was very well received... it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go".[82]

One of the techniques specifically mentioned by Collins was the use of search engine optimization to alter Google results.[84] He said:

And where we want to get to – and this will take time, this is where David's team are magical – is you get to the point where even if they type in "Uzbek child labour" or "Uzbek human rights violation", some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is.[81]

In the recording, the executives claimed to have access to or relationships with numerous senior British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne; David Cameron's former Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton; James Arbuthnot (chair of the Defence Select Committee); and MP Rory Stewart.[81]

Collins also claimed that Bell Pottinger had been involved in David Cameron raising a matter with the Chinese government on behalf of a Bell Pottinger client, saying:

…Just as a final example just for you... I'm not saying we can always do this but just as an example of what we can sometimes do. Three weeks ago, we were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon by one of our clients, Dyson... They rang up and they said look, we've got a huge issue, and that is that a lot of our products are being completely ripped off in China, to the point where they're not just completely duplicating the product... (The) Chinese government won't take it seriously, it's half past two on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the Chinese Prime Minister is coming in for a UK visit – can you please get the UK to raise it?...And I'm pleased to say that on the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister and showed him the photos of the products. I'm not saying we can do that all the time but that is an illustration of what, if you have the right message – David Cameron, yes he was doing it for Dyson, yes he was doing it because we asked him to do it, he was doing this also because he thought this was also in the UK wider national interest. This was something where there would be a UK proper interest. But in terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you've got the right message, yes, we can do it.[81]

The allegations of Bell Pottinger directly influencing the British Prime Minister and other senior Government figures on behalf of private sector clients led to calls from the opposition Labour Party for the Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to launch an investigation, and from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency for the immediate introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists.[85][86]

Editing Wikipedia[edit]

In December 2011, it came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government[87] and violating Wikipedia rules by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin.[88][89]

On 8 December 2011, the UK national newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that some Wikipedia user accounts allegedly linked to Bell Pottinger had been suspended. Its report stated that "Further claims published in the Independent today suggested that the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year, some of them adding favourable comments and others removing negative comments. Alterations were said to have been made by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who used the pseudonym 'Biggleswiki'."[90] Among the articles edited by "Biggleswiki" was the Wikipedia entry for Dahabshiil,[91] a funds transfer firm. On the same day, The Independent reported that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had described Bell Pottinger as "ethically blind", after it had admitted altering Wikipedia pages relating to its clients.[92]

On 9 December 2011, The Independent published further allegations, including that Bell Pottinger had targeted the Wikipedia entry of Gordon Brown's sister-in-law, the environmental campaigner Clare Rewcastle Brown, and the South African arms manufacturer the Paramount Group.[93] On the same day, it was reported that a parliamentary investigation into lobbying firms, including Bell Pottinger, and their links with ministers, would be launched, and that an internal investigation had begun at Bell Pottinger.[94][95]

In response to the articles published on 6 to 9 December 2011, Bell Pottinger lodged a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) against the Independent, claiming that the information about its activities published by the newspaper had been obtained through subterfuge and was not of sufficient public interest to merit the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's undercover investigation.[96] However, in its ruling, the PCC agreed with the Bureau that there was a "broad public interest in exploring the relationship between lobbying and politics" and that it would not have been possible to obtain details of the techniques used by the lobbying company through other means.[96] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's editor, Iain Overton, welcomed the PCC's ruling, saying: "During our undercover filming Bell Pottinger executives explained to us that one of the PR tools they used to attack news stories was to make an official complaint to the PCC. True to its word, Bell Pottinger went on the offensive following our exposé claiming foul".[97]

In June 2014, Bell Pottinger was a notable absentee from a group of major agencies which publicly pledged to abide by Wikipedia's rules[98] and end the practice of amending their clients' Wikipedia pages.[99]

'State Capture' in South Africa[edit]

Bell Pottinger also worked for the Gupta family in a South African political controversy, affecting the company's relationships with other agency customers.[100][101] In late February 2016 several internet-based sources were altered to be more favourable to the Guptas. These included activities in Wikipedia, chat rooms, blogs and on news articles related to the Gupta family.[102] It was considered (by the Mail and Guardian) that these alterations were part of "a concerted online counter-propaganda campaign launched on behalf of the Gupta family".[102]

After Business Day reported that Bell Pottinger had taken on Oakbay Investments as a client, Investec stopped using Bell Pottinger's services in March 2016.[77]

In December 2016, it was reported that South African billionaire Johann Rupert had also dropped Bell Pottinger as the PR agency of Richemont. Rupert ended the contract after accusing Bell Pottinger of running a social media campaign against him, to divert attention away from persistent 'state capture' allegations leveled at the Gupta family.[78][103] In February 2017, Rupert alleged that Bell Pottinger had maliciously altered his Wikipedia page.[104]

On 19 March 2017 the Sunday Times alleged that Bell Pottinger was behind a social media strategy, using fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users, in an attempt to influence public opinion, as well as targeting media and personalities that were opposed to the Gupta family.[105] The aim of the campaign was to portray the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy involving "white monopoly capital".[101][106] The allegations were denied by Victoria Geoghegan, a partner and director at Bell Pottinger.[105][101] On 12 April 2017, it was reported that Bell Pottinger had dropped the Gupta family as a client.[80]

Bell Pottingers' involvement with the controversial Gupta Family was once again thrown under the spotlight when South African newspapers The Citizen and Sunday Times published several emails. These emails, allegedly between South African President Jacob Zumas son, Duduzane Zuma (and a close Gupta comrade) and Bell Pottinger points to a ‘dirty’ Public Relation smear battle. [107]

The emails propose a plot to have Hamza Farooqui (MD of WorldSapce in South Africa), and a partner to a Gupta associate, Salim Essa, blame the previous South African Deputy Finance Minister, Mr Mcebisi Jonas, of dishonesty and corruption. This alleged ‘dirty’ statement was formed by Bell Pottinger employee, Nick Lambert. The statement was earmarked for release soon after Mr Jonas said that he was offered a bribe by a Gupta family member to betray his Boss, Mr Pravin Gordhan. Mr Jonas claimed he denied this bribe and instead made a public announcement.  

The ‘dirty’ statement was never released after legal concerns were raised by Victoria Geoghegan, an Executive of Bell Pottinger. The monthly retainer for the Gupta and related services is said to be approximately GBP 100 000. This retainer has since been cancelled given bad publicity and protests against Bell Pottinger.

'White Monopoly Capital'

Bell Pottinger took on work for the Gupta Family in 2016. The objective was to enhance the Guptas public image by targeting ‘white’ (Caucasian) South African leaders to distract from grave allegations of State Capture. The strategy included a Social Media campaign that ‘white monopoly capital’ is actively blocking transformation in South Africa. The phrase ‘white monopoly capital’ has since been used many times by South African politicians. It is not known who or what the phrase actually refers to.

The work of Bell Pottinger for the Gupta Family went unnoticed by Founding member of Bell Pottinger Tim Bell. Mr Bell reportedly left his own firm in disgust over the plan and campaign.

Mr Bell alleged that (the controversial South African) arms deal facilitator, Mr Fana Hlongwane and Duduzane Zuma attended several meetings together. Mr Andile Mngxitama, who is part of the South African organisation Black First Land First, and Mr Mzwanele Manyi with the Decolonisation Foundation were involved.

The campaign would allegedly include Twitter bots, among others, to create fake news campaigns in order to criticize ‘white monopoly capital’ while defending the Gupta Family.

Propaganda[edit]

It was revealed on October 2, 2016 that the Pentagon paid British PR firm Bell Pottinger $540 million to create fake terrorist videos, fake news articles for Arab news channels and propaganda videos.[108][109]

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed the details of the multimillion-pound operation. Bell Pottinger is understood to have been funded some $540 million from the US Department of Defence (DoD) for five contracts from May 2007 to December 2011, according to The Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.[110][111] Lord Bell confirmed Bell Pottinger reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the U.S. National Security Council on its work in Iraq.[112]

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External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°31′4.69″N 0°6′43.66″W / 51.5179694°N 0.1121278°W / 51.5179694; -0.1121278