Bell Pottinger chief quits: 'I've been let down by the colleagues who misled me'

The chief executive of Bell Pottinger, James Henderson, has formally resigned amid a scandal at the public relations firm over its allegedly racially divisive work for the wealthy and controversial Gupta family in South Africa.

Following weeks of speculation that he had already taken a step back, in a statement released today (4 September), the chief executive of nearly five years said he felt "deeply let down" by his colleagues whom he claims "misled" him in reference to the firm's work with Oakbay Capital.

While Henderson denied any initiation or involvement in the Oakbay account, he said he accepts that as chief executive, he has "ultimate executive responsibility for Bell Pottinger".

"I feel deeply let down by the colleagues who misled me. However, I think it is important I take proper accountability for what has happened," he said.

"I have also striven to put the best interests of Bell Pottinger and its brilliant staff first, and it is for that reason that I am stepping down today."

Bell Pottinger was hired by Gupta-owned Oakbay Capital last year to improve the reputation of the billionaire family, which stands accused of exploiting its relationship with South African President Jacob Zuma for private gain.

Oakbay was paying Bell Pottinger £100,000 a month for its lobby and PR advice.

Bell Pottinger’s controversial campaign, as revealed in leaked emails, sought to deflect attention away from the controversial Gupta family and President Zuma by stirring up racial tensions. Its message was that ‘white monopoly capital’ was the real enemy holding back South Africa.

According to reports, the PR firm suggested Oakbay doctor its Wikipedia page to present itself in a better light, while it allegedly coordinated the creation of fake Twitter accounts to target prominent white businesspeople in South Africa to draw attention away from the Gupta family.

Bell Pottinger subsequently lost several of its biggest clients, including Investec, the South African tourism board and Richemont, the luxury goods company that owns Cartier and Montblanc and is controlled by the South African billionaire Johann Rupert.

Bell Pottinger cancelled the contract with Oakbay in April.

In July, Henderson issued a ‘full, unequivocal and absolute apology’ for the work he said the agency should never have been undertaken. He hired Herbert Smith, the multinational law firm, promising a full investigation.

Henderson's resignation came in anticipation of the publication of the Herbert Smith report. He said, having read the findings, "I recognise the business requires a change of leadership to fix the problems of the past and to move forward."

"I would like to thank all of the Bell Pottinger staff and clients who have supported, and continue to support me. The business will now move forward in the best interests of its clients and staff," he added.

Chairman Mark Smith said Henderson "has always had the best interests of the business at heart, especially during the recent, difficult months."

"He was not involved in the Oakbay account but as chief executive he believes he must take ultimately responsibility. That is a laudable decision," Smith said.

The firm was found guilty by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) of four breaches of the professional code after Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, lodged a formal complaint.