Out of the Pottinger and into the fire for SA?
Victoria Geoghegan's new PR firm has attitudes that will ring an ominous bell for South Africans. We must remain wary
There were more than a few surprised faces when news broke that Victoria Geoghegan had bounced back into the global PR industry.
After all, she was the main driver of Bell Pottinger’s infamous hate campaigns in SA during 2017, which saw the Gupta proxies wage war on the truth – and anyone and everyone who was an opponent of Jacob Zuma – without a care in the world for the consequences.
After active campaigning by the Save South Africa campaign, the DA and even Afriforum, followed by a massive slap-down by the British PR authority (yes, they have such a thing), Bell Pottinger was toast – and, it seemed, so was everyone associated with it.
But two years later, although Bell Pottinger is no more, it’s easy to understand why she has bounced back if you look where she has bounced back (and been rapidly rehabilitated). And, in so doing, she has become something like the Carl Niehaus of global PR hate campaigns.
You can’t keep a bad person down, it seems.
Geoghegan is now employed by Thoburns, a UK-based global agency that specialises in “reputation management”. Alongside her is another former Bell Pottinger partner, Nick Lambert, who joined Thoburns in October 2017. Lambert also worked on the Gupta account.
The best way to understand Thoburns – whose clients have included HSBC, Citibank, Banco Santander and Russian gold mining company Petropavlovsk – is probably to understand its owner, Richard Thoburn, whose public persona seems to levitate between being curiously eccentric and completely obnoxious.
He has, for example, published two booklets: 60 Most Appalling Lefties and An A to Z of Why Lefties are Bastards, which has a photo of Tony Blair on the cover, holding a baby next to a pram.
The booklets were published by Thoburn’s own publishing company, Appalling Lefty Publishing, to “hit back at politicians, media luvvies and regulation obsessives who spread misery wherever they go”, according to a piece in the UK newspaper The Telegraph.
“Lefties are know-alls,” Thoburn is quoted as saying. “They meddle. They strangle us with red tape. They take our money through taxes. Lefties are patronising. They want to protect us when people make jokes at our expense.
“Their guiding principles are: if it moves, tax it, if it still moves, regulate it, and if it stops moving, nationalise it.”
Thoburn even set up two websites, mostappallinglefties.com and topleftybaiters.com, to solicit votes on “who is the looniest leftie” and “who is the biggest scourge of the socialists”. He later hosted a “Champagne without The Socialists” dinner to “present awards to lefties and lefty-baiters”.
It all sounds like harmless, maybe even childish, fun, right?
It gets more serious when you look at the work done by Thoburn as part of a “think tank” called Policy Defusion, which he set up with three other businessmen in 2010 to try and undermine the Liberal Democrat Party to prevent it winning votes from the Conservative Party.
Some examples of their work can be viewed here.
Thoburns itself has been around for a while. The company was founded in 1986 and, according to the company website, initially focused on “helping financial institutions in the Middle East raise their profile with the international financial community through creative advertising, media buying and public relations supporting events such as IMF/World Bank meetings and Davos”.
If you’re part of global capitalism (not white monopoly capitalism), therefore, Thoburn is your friend.
Thoburn has a particular penchant for what his company website calls “rescuing dogs from Romania”.
That’s right. Romanian dogs.
His fondness for rescuing Romanian dogs drove him so hard that, in 2013, he published online adverts urging British employers not to employ Romanians, describing their homeland as “the most depraved country on earth”.
It didn’t end there: the ad discouraged people from holidaying in Romania or buying Romanian products, and fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment by posing the provocative question: “How do you feel about … employing Romanians when they arrive in Britain?”
He made Borat and the people of Kazakhstan look like chommies.
Britain’s advertising standards authority banned the ad, saying it was “likely to be seen as xenophobic and to cause serious and widespread offence to those who saw it”.
The fugitive adviser
A look at Thorburn’s “leadership” is also illuminating. Its advisory board includes Roger Bootle, described as “one of the few high-profile economists who supported Brexit”, and Reg Valin, who built a significant PR empire during the privatisation of government entities by Margaret Thatcher.
And then there’s Shaukat Aziz.
If his name sounds familiar, it could be because the Pakistan government recently issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of misusing his powers while prime minister and “incurring losses to the national kitty”.
The arrest warrants were issued after Shauket was “persistently absent” from court during 2018.
A footnote: Shauket was prime minister under the presidency of Pervez Musharraf, who resigned in 2008 to avoid impeachment. He’s currently on trial for treason.
Get the picture?
If you’re still in doubt about Thoburns’ corporate culture, bear in mind the reminder presented by online SA news site Business Insider last week, when they broke the story that Geoghegan was back: that in late 2016 Thoburns advertised its ability to “influence” governments, journalists, and others using a photo of then American president-elect Donald Trump and right-wing British politician Nigel Farage, with the headline: “Influence. Creativity. Relationships.”
A Bell Pottinger revival?
So what are the chances of a revival of Bell Pottinger’s dirty tricks, particularly with the combination of Geoghegan and Lambert at Thoburns, and the company’s much-stated commitment to influence, creativity and relationships?
One reality is that there are some – including me – who believe the roots of the Bell Pottinger project still exist in SA. As someone who’s been working in the PR space for two decades and has seen the difficulty foreign PR firms have in understanding the South African dynamic, it seems unfathomable that Bell Pottinger operated at the time without South African support. And if someone waved a big enough cheque book in their face, they’d probably be up and at ’em again.
Another reality is that the person who brought Bell Pottinger to our shores was Duduzane Zuma. And if anyone was in need of some positive press right now, it’s him – from court cases to the Zondo commission, there’s no avoiding public platforms and the court of public opinion for him.
A third, most concerning, reality is that the Zuma Project – with its “radical economic transformation” mantra still ringing across some ANC branches and even Luthuli House – still exists. It might not have Gupta money to play with (or maybe it does), but there’s no doubt that it still has access to funny money, and that it realises the value of social media (ask @PresJG Zuma, even though he’s no longer “Pres”).
So what should South Africans do?
Ultimately, we have to be vigilant. And believe that when something feels like a conspiracy, it often is.
It was societal awareness and mobilisation, in the first place, that tripped up the Bell Pottinger hate project in 2017 and brought down a company that had waged war on the truth across the world. We achieved a unique victory, through a combination of formal and informal protest coupled with solid investigation work by journalists and online activists.
So we should let Victoria know we’re watching her. And the moment we catch a whiff of her, her agency, or her proxies in SA, we should start blowing the whistle.
But try not to use a Romanian dog whistle ...
This article was first published in the Vrye Weekblad. Chris Vick was actively involved in the Save South Africa campaign, including the campaign against Bell Pottinger. He runs a PR consultancy called black and, if he were interested in doing “PR dirty tricks”, would have a competitive interest in keeping Thoburns out of South Africa. But he doesn't play that way.