Victoria Geoghegan, the PR executive vilified for her leading role in the ‘GuptaGate’ South African scandal that led to the collapse of Bell Pottinger, has returned to a frontline post in UK public relations.
The 35-year-old, fired from her position as managing director by Bell Pottinger in June 2017, has been hired by Thoburns, an eight-person reputation management and communications agency led by chairman Richard Thoburn.
It is understood that Geoghegan was initially approached by a headhunting firm who Thoburns commissioned to find potential employees for Greentarget, a PR agency that it has now sold.
Thoburn says: ‘I was a bit curious. The Bell Pottinger story was hot at the time and I had read about all the wicked things she was supposed to have done. I went to see her and was immediately struck by her intelligence and personal integrity. She was honest and upfront about it and I was very keen to have her.’
Geoghegan was pregnant at the time so did not join Thoburns until late last year after taking maternity leave.
Thoburn says she has essentially been put in charge of restarting his agency’s PR activities after the Greentarget sale, together with former Bell Pottinger partner Nick Lambert, who joined Thoburns in October 2017.
Thoburn adds: ‘She has brought in a few projects already and I have seen the loyalty of her former clients. The ones I have spoken to think she has been treated appallingly. She is not a geopolitical PR specialist. She is a corporate and financial PR person. I think it is a great opportunity for a small firm like ours to get a supremely-talented person who has something to prove.’
Geoghegan is the former Bell Pottinger manager most closely associated with the campaign for Oakbay Investments, a vehicle of the South African Gupta business family, that brought down an agency that was once the UK’s largest by fee income.
The Oakbay account was won by Bell Pottinger after Victoria Geoghegan’s father Christopher introduced the companies.
The brief was a campaign around the ‘economic emancipation’ of South Africa’s grass roots population at a time when the Guptas were being accused of wielding excessive influence over the government of former South African president Jacob Zuma.
As details of the campaign’s posting of thousands of tweets and other social media activities were highlighted, Geoghegan was characterised in the South African press and social media as orchestrating a dirty tricks campaign whipping up racial tensions in the nation.
One South African headline declared From angel to pure evil: How UK PR Victoria Geoghegan got her claws into South Africa.
Another called her a 'news prostitute', while a third asked 'how evil mastermind Victoria Geoghegan sleeps at night'.
Geoghegan has always denies misconduct on the account and is said to believe that she was unfairly made a scapegoat of the GuptaGate affair.
She was contacted by CorpComms Magazine for this article but is away on a family holiday.
Bell Pottinger lost lucrative client contracts as a result of revelations about its role on the Oakbay campaign and was criticised in a report by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, which it commissioned to investigate the affair.
Famed for the role of its co-founder Lord Tim Bell as a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, it became only the second firm to be expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and collapsed into administration.
Thoburns was founded by Richard Thoburn in 1986, initially to help financial institutions in the Middle East raise their profile in the international financial community.
It bought Greentarget in 2011 and has since added capabilities in branding, employee communications and sustainability.
Geoghegan joins a lengthy roster of former Bell Pottinger executives who have found new roles following the agency’s collapse into administration in 2017.
Philip Peck, another member of Bell Pottinger’s Oakbay account team, now works for Sans Frontieres Associates, the new PR firm of Lord Bell and former Bell Pottinger executive Jonathan Lehrle.
A fourth former Oakbay team member, David Bass, now works for Copperfield Advisory in New York, while former Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson has set up a new PR outfit called J&H Communications.
Elsewhere, Pagefield recruited Bell Pottinger’s 18-person crisis communications team, while other ex-staffers at the firm moved to agencies including Maitland, Hudson Sandler, Powerscourt, Buchanan, Lansons, Edelman and Hawthorn.