Thatcher’s PR guru destroys own reputation in car-crash BBC interview

by David Lewis*

Tim Bell, officially Baron Bell of Belgravia, used to be the go-to PR guru for politicians in Britain. He was the election strategist of Margaret Thatcher, who gave him a knighthood. Tony Blair made him a peer. But it is safe to say that nobody will be beating a path to Bell’s door after the disastrous interview he gave to the BBC this month.

Bell was being quizzed on the Newsnight programme about work done by Bell Pottinger, a company founded by him, on behalf of the controversial Gupta family in South Africa. The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) has just expelled Bell Pottinger for five years for inflaming racial tensions in the country. The Financial Times quoted the PRCA’s boss as saying Bell Pottinger’s work “has set back South Africa by possibly 10 years”.

Interrogated by Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark on 4 September, Bell appeared lazy, ill-prepared and, to put it mildly, economical with the truth. He said he met the Guptas in January 2016, when he was chairman of Bell Pottinger, to discuss what work the firm might do for them. But he also said he told Bell Pottinger’s CEO that the company could not handle the work because of “a conflict of interest”. At which point Wark produced an email dated 26 January 2016 in which Bell proclaimed the trip a great success and foresaw a deal, which he would oversee, worth £100,000 a month plus costs. Later in the interview Bell also said he had nothing to do with getting the account.

Apart from the inconsistencies in his story, Bell made himself look even worse by replying twice to his mobile phone, which he had failed to switch off. (On one occasion he even showed Wark who was calling him. She was not impressed.) He also admitted that Bell Pottinger, which he left in August 2016 but in which he still holds shares, was likely to collapse in the wake of the racism row.

It may be that Baron Bell is losing his touch as he grows old. (He will be 76 next month.) But that should not stop us learning the lessons from this PR debacle. Among these I would list:

· Be prepared. Research your own story. Look out your old emails.
· Don’t be caught out by a clever journalist.
· Don’t lie.
· When you or your firm has done wrong, apologise. Say this was an oversight, a bad mistake, that procedures are being tightened up to ensure such a thing will never happen again. Etc.
· Money is money, of course, but not all business is good business- either morally or for your company’s reputation. (In this case the Gupta deal was bad for both.)
· If you are Bell Pottinger and worried about your company’s reputation, don’t let your ex-chairman be interviewed!

· Former Spokesman and Head of Communications, European Broadcasting Union, Geneva

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