PR of the Realm: Lord Bell on the art of communication
Public relations guru Lord Bell is the man who deposed leaders and exiled billionaires call when they need an image makeover. Ian Burrell finds out what makes Margaret Thatcher's favourite spin doctor tick
Monday 18 August 2008
Lord Bell of Belgravia is in his fifth floor office (next door to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Mayfair) firmly but ever so politely refusing the photographer's request to put his hands together. "I'd rather not," says the master of presentation, "it would look as though I was praying."
Three decades after propelling Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street, the former Saatchi & Saatchi executive does not appear in need of divine intervention, though he is ever willing to intervene himself, on behalf of a client of course, and for the appropriate fee. As such he is probably the most powerful man in British marketing and communications.
Operating on a global scale, Lord Bell is quite prepared to give counsel to dictators, deposed leaders and exiled billionaires, especially when they find themselves pariahs in need of a media makeover. President Lukashenko of Belarus, who presides over what Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, described as "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe", is a recently acquired client of his Chime Communications empire.
He has also represented Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, and Boris Berezovsky, the oil and media magnate who is exiled in London and has threatened to overthrow Vladimir Putin. Berezovsky has successfully avoided all attempts at extradition to Russia, where he was convicted in absentia last year and sentenced to six years for embezzlement.
As Georgia went to war with Russia last week, some thoughts turned to Badri Patarkatsishvili, the country's richest man and would be president, who died suddenly in exile in his Surrey mansion in February. Lord Bell was Patarkatsishvili's spokesman.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, who last week fled corruption charges and headed into exile in Britain, is yet another who has turned to the Tory peer for help. Manchester City, the Premier League club owned by the former Thai leader, retains the services of Bell Pottinger North, part of Chime's PR division. The firm's brief is to work with "Dr Thaksin Shinawatra to help communicate his vision and aspirations for the club". But if convicted, Shinawatra would face being forced to sell his stake in City for failing the Premier League's "fit and proper persons" test.
And when British mercenary Simon Mann was last month sentenced to 34 years for planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea, Baroness Thatcher's favourite spin doctor was on hand to defend the reputation of her son Mark, who had earlier admitted unwitting involvement in the plot.
Lord Bell is everywhere. At times his role seems closer to the world of international diplomacy than that of product launches and press releases, though Chime covers those bases comprehensively too. He makes no secret at all of his relationships with so-called despots. But aren't such associations damaging to his carefully managed reputation, and to his business, (which made £15.7m profit on a £96.5m income in 2007)? Lord Bell wholly rejects the notion.
"My experience is exactly the opposite and I'd rather make a judgment based on my experience than some theoretical hypothesis. My job is that I run a commercial organisation so I don't deliberately do things that are bad for it commercially. I might make a judgment error but so far we are the number one in the UK so we must be doing something right," he says, the pile of his velvet smooth delivery roughed up just for a moment.
"Listen, I'm an agent not a principal. If people think someone is a dictator then that's his problem and not mine. I believe that everybody is entitled to their advocate. I would never ask anybody here to do something which they were morally or ethically opposed to. When we did a job for the Norwegian government on whaling, a number of people didn't want to work on it and I said they didn't have to."
He says he does not "bring prejudice and bias to my decisions", then pauses and adds "or try not to would probably be a more honest way of putting it". It's true that Chime is an organisation of great diversity. Among Lord Bell's senior staff is David Hill, the former Downing Street advisor to Tony Blair and now a director of Bell Pottinger. Jon Oates, until recently the Liberal Democrats communications director, has joined Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which specialises in government relations.
"Because I'm clearly a Conservative and take the Conservative whip in the House of Lords everybody assumes that I run my business on the basis of being a Conservative, which is absolute rubbish," says the peer. "There are people here who represent the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party."
Chime is expanding in multiple directions. Earlier this year, it bought the PR business owned by Stuart Higgins, the former editor of The Sun. Higgins's clients included Chelsea and the acquisition was made by Chime subsidiary Fast Track, which Bell had earlier purchased from the former Olympic athletes Alan Pascoe and Jon Ridgeon for around £40m. Fast Track represents the British Olympic Association. Chime has been appointed to work on London 2012 and is assisting Madrid in its bid to stage the games in 2016. It also did the European media work for Beijing's successful bid. Lord Bell is everywhere. He has opened offices in Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in response to the growth of media and business in the region. "I do travel a lot. I probably go more to the Middle East than anywhere else. I go to Washington a lot and to various places in eastern Europe and the occasional trip to South America."
On the walls of his office are historical maps of South Africa, Scandinavia, Jamaica, Peru but the Test Match is showing, with the sound turned down, on his office television. "He's a jammy bastard," Lord Bell breaks off to observe of a South African batsman. He says the global importance of London helps him to run his business. "It's the media crucible of the world," he says. "Sky really began that process. What Sky did was introduce the concept of consumer empowerment."
He has worked for Rupert Murdoch on and off for 28 years and is "very proud" that the "most important person in the world" will "occasionally take my calls".
Politics is never far from his lips. Though he will help Belarus improve its image online, he would not take the Labour Party's business because his own philosophy would mean that "I would find it very hard to give good advice". Asked about the furore over a possible state funeral for Baroness Thatcher, he wittily dodges the question – "I want her to live forever" – but says he would be worried if such an issue was exploited for political gain. "She is a symbol of the hatred of the left."
At the age of 66 is he still as excited about his job as he was in the Thatcher years, when he was so close to the seat of power in Britain? "No, because I'm older. But I love my job and it has got better not worse. I think I've got better at it because I've got more experience. And because it's more interesting now; dealing with the mobile phone and the internet is a really interesting challenge and has had a real structural effect on our industry."
He has teenage children who have taught him the power of social networking websites. "I have to embrace digital technology because it would be stupid for me not to. It's not easy because I'm old and all the faces in the digital world are young. But there's an inbuilt assumption that people who are young use the internet and people that are old don't – it's not true."
Despite the economic downturn, he is confident Chime will meet its targets for this year. "Our experience is that whatever the turbulence in the stock market, whatever is being said about gloom and doom in the economy, it's not showing up in our figures," he says. "Although people are having difficulties over credit and so on, they are still using communications to talk to people about it, whereas in the last downturn they said 'It's a nightmare, I'm not going to say a thing until it's over.'"
He is less upbeat about the quality of recruits to the PR industry. "Unfortunately a large number of people in our industry are not in it because they want a career, and they want to understand how it works, they just want a job. They want to work for the least number of hours for the most amount of money. Our industry is populated by a lot of people who really aren't very interested in what they do," he says. "On the other hand our role has become more important and people at the top of the business are contributing a hell of a lot more than they used to. They're invited to the top table because the discussion about how you are going to communicate something is almost as important as what you're going to communicate."
Lord Bell is a student of the history of media, the value of which he learned from Lord Saatchi. He will not be putting his thoughts down in a book, partly because he hates pomposity ("the people I least enjoy working with are the people who really do take themselves seriously, it makes relationships so difficult") and partly because he says he's copied all his ideas from others. "I'm a great subscriber to Winston Churchill's saying that the only original remark is something that hasn't been said for some time," he says, a framed photograph of Winnie on his desk.
He notes that while many in Britain think media began with the BBC and The Times, commercial media was really nurtured by Procter & Gamble and its use of the American networks to develop soap operas, which remain the dominant genre in television. Despite the durability of the soaps, he says "nobody delivers mass audience anymore" and that stories fly from one medium to another. "Marshall McLuhan's great theory that 'It's the medium not the message' is actually not true," he says.
Creativity in PR has never been more important. He praises Higgins for having re-launched Walkers cheese and onion crisps by holding a party for everyone on the electoral roll named Cheese or Onion. "That included all those people who pronounce it oh-ny-an," laughs the peer.
He also likes Higgins because he is a "doer". Lord Bell is a hugely positive person. As a teenager joining the fledgling commercial television industry he was taught the lesson "Only opportunities, no problems", and he has never forgotten it.
No doubt this ability to see something good where others cannot has helped him to win much business. "My job is not to look for problems it's to look for virtues. It's why people think I'm an optimist," he says. "I think it's why clients quite like me, because I look for something good to do rather than just sit there and tell them how awful everything is."
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