Opinion

Bell Pottinger harmed us. Now it can help us

09 July 2017 - 00:00

About a year ago news began to leak that all was not well inside the offices of Bell Pottinger, the London public relations firm that advised the Gupta family until recently.
Sir Tim Bell, the firm's founder, it was said, had fallen out with James Henderson, its CEO. Bell had many South African friends. Henderson not so much.
But efforts by leading South Africans to talk to Henderson through Bell failed because the CEO wasn't listening to him.
In the corridors of Bell Pottinger at 330 High Holborn, the firm's work with the Guptas had, for obvious reasons, become deeply unpopular.
Associates from as far away as Australia complained that the Gupta work was hampering their ability to secure clients. Henderson still wasn't listening.
At the time, when I asked the head of the Gupta account, Victoria Geoghegan, whether any of this was true, she strongly denied it. And when, about last September or October, someone told me that Bell Pottinger was considering closing the account, Geoghegan was quick to snap back: "That just isn't going to happen."
And she seemed to be right. Henderson promoted her to MD level and made her a partner. Were my sources mad?
No. They were just early. Or Henderson was painfully slow. And when he finally bowed to the inevitable and issued a genuinely abject apology to South Africans on Thursday for the damage his firm had done to race relations in Africa's most promising democracy, it must have been because he had learned, or seen, something truly shocking.

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