British PR agency Bell Pottinger said on Wednesday it was exploring a potential sale after it lost business for running a racially charged campaign in South Africa, leaving its future increasingly uncertain.
Bell Pottinger said it had hired accountancy firm BDO “to look at all options for the business including a possible sale” as the tarnished company faced the prospect of being broken up.
Banking giant HSBC cut ties with Bell Pottinger and the PR agency’s second-biggest shareholder walked away on Tuesday after it was thrown out of an industry body for running a campaign that the political opposition said had inflamed racial tensions.
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, had complained to the Public Relations and Communications Association that Bell Pottinger’s campaign was trying to “divide and conquer” the South African public in order to keep President Jacob Zuma and his party in power.
Bell Pottinger worked with the president’s son and the influential Gupta family on the campaign. According to an email published in South African media, Bell Pottinger said the campaign needed to stress the continued “existence of economic apartheid”.
The communications preceded a sustained campaign condemning enemies of Zuma, including pro-business elements of the ruling African National Congress, as agents of “white monopoly capital”.
The slogan, aired frequently on a Gupta-owned television station, quickly gained traction in a country where the white minority still wields disproportionate economic clout two decades after the end of apartheid.
The PRCA expelled Bell Pottinger for a minimum of five years. The PR firm, founded in 1987, said it accepted there were lessons to be learned, but disputed the basis on which the ruling was made.
Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell, who worked on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s election victories in the 70s and 80s, told Reuters he was sad over the fate of the firm.
He visited South Africa to meet the Guptas ahead of the start of the work, but has since distanced himself from the South Africa scandal.
Bell has previously courted controversy for doing work for the wife of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, as well as for the Pinochet Foundation, which works to promote the legacy of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.