Thatcher's PR guru bids for toughest job of his career

Can Lord Bell salvage the image of ANC leader and South African presidential candidate Jacob Zuma?
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He is best known as the man who reinvented Margaret Thatcher, micro-managing her image to help her win three consecutive elections. Now Tim Bell could be hired in a similar capacity by Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa's ANC party, who is hoping to shake off a tarnished reputation as he runs in next month's presidential election.

Lord Bell of Belgravia, 67, who was made a peer by Tony Blair in 1998, confirmed to The Independent on Sunday last night that his Bell Pottinger agency has been in talks with Mr Zuma about a possible PR campaign, although he has yet to hear whether his bid has been accepted.

"We have given a presentation but they have yet to accept it," Lord Bell said. "I don't plan to make any further comment. You would have to ask them [the ANC] what is happening."

Mr Zuma is said to have singled out Lord Bell as the man to turn around his troubled image. For the past six years Mr Zuma has been dogged by a series of damning allegations and court cases, which include charges of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering. In 2006 he faced accusations of rape by the daughter of a deceased friend. Though he admitted having sex with her, he was later acquitted.

During the trial Mr Zuma provoked outrage when he said he had not used contraception despite knowing the girl was HIV positive, but had taken a shower immediately afterwards "to cut the risk of contracting HIV". A polygamist, he is due to marry his sixth wife this year.

South African press reports say Mr Zuma has spent recent weeks devising a strategy to salvage his reputation ahead of polling day on 22 April.

As one of the founding fathers of spin, Lord Bell is well placed to lend a hand. He co-founded the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970. Its "Labour isn't working" slogan helped sweep the Tories to power in 1979. He subsequently became Mrs Thatcher's personal PR guru, advising her on everything from her clothes and interview technique to particular hairstyles.

Since leaving Saatchi & Saatchi to start his own agency, Lowe Bell, in 1987, he has been instrumental in shaping modern corporate PR. In recent years he has taken on some controversial clients: last year he was asked to burnish the reputation of Aleksander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, the regime Condoleezza Rice described as "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe". Before that Lord Bell successfully lobbied on behalf of the Saudi government to persuade the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into alleged bribes in the Al Yamamah arms deal.

He sees Lady Thatcher every week. When her son Mark was caught up in the planned coup in Equatorial Guinea by the British mercenary Simon Mann, he stepped in to defend his name.

If Lord Bell does win the contract from Mr Zuma, it could prove to be one of his toughest PR jobs to date. Mr Zuma has been in and out of court since his involvement in a controversial $5bn (£3.5bn) arms deal first surfaced. He was cleared of any wrongdoing on a technicality in the High Court last September, prompting accusations of political interference that subsequently caused President Thabo Mbeki to resign. This, in turn, led to ructions within the ANC, prompting the formation of a splinter group, the Congress of the People, which will be challenging the ANC in the election.

Although Mr Zuma is expected to win next month's poll, he will still have to go to court in August, to be tried once again on charges of corruption.