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Bell Pottinger's CEO resigns amid South Africa racism controversy; operations here not impacted

BELL Pottinger's CEO, James Henderson, has resigned from his position over the weekend after the public relations firm was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association in the United Kingdom for its alleged involvement in a racially controversial campaign in South Africa, although a spokesperson told The Business Times that operations here are not impacted.

According to The Guardian, Bell Pottinger had allegedly been paid £100,000 (S$175,000) a month to run a campaign on behalf of Oakbay Capital, an investment holding company run by the billionaire Gupta family.

The campaign, which had the phrase, "white monopoly capital", is said to have stoked racial tensions in South Africa.

The Guptas have been accused of using their relationship with South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, and his family to "influence political appointments to secure lucrative state contracts for their companies", the Financial Times said.

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Mark Worthington, partner & managing director, Singapore of Bell Pottinger, said in an e-mail to BT that Bell Pottinger Asia's staff and management have no involvement in this matter and operations in Asia continue as normal.

A report in The Guardian said that the Public Relations and Communications Association took action after it heard allegations that Bell Pottinger sought to stir up anger about "economic apartheid" in South Africa to draw attention away from the Guptas, who have denied any close relationship between them and the president.

In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Lord Bell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and founder of Bell Pottinger, said it is unlikely that the firm will survive.

He attempted to distance himself from any association with the work in South Africa, despite admitting to leading early meetings. The PR guru, famed for helping Mrs Thatcher in three general election victories, argued that he had quit the firm in August last year partly because people did not listen to him over the Gupta work.

As one of the biggest and most well-known PR firms in the world, Bell Pottinger's reputation is at risk should clients, including those in Singapore, pull out.

Although there are no clients who have pulled out in its Asian operations thus far, Financial Times said that Bell Pottinger has lost big-name clients such as luxury goods group Richemont and South African bank Investec.