Lord Bell obituary: Charismatic and controversial PR pioneer who helped shape modern comms

Lord Bell, a titan of PR, has died at the age of 77. PRWeek UK editor-in-chief Danny Rogers looks back at his career and analyses his impact on the modern communications industry.

Bell: 'I’ve been an outsider all my life and I’ve like being so'
Bell: 'I’ve been an outsider all my life and I’ve like being so'

Born in 1941, Lord (Tim) Bell was a controversial character in British public life. He was warm, charismatic and fun in person – and without doubt stood as a giant of the modern PR industry.

Despite a colourful career, punctuated by scandal, he will probably be best remembered as "Thatcher’s PR man". Bell may not have been directly employed by Margaret Thatcher during her crucial 1979 election victory – he was managing director of the Conservative Party’s newly hired ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi at the time – but he was nevertheless the pivotal figure in that campaign.

Bell outside Saatchi & Saatchi's Charlotte Street office

Bell was actually a relatively youthful advertising executive at the time but, inspired by Thatcher and motivated by a fierce loyalty to her, he learned quickly and became an adept and influential figure throughout her time in office.

Despite being an adman in the early days, Bell soon discovered that his real strength was understanding the wider editorial process and in forging relationships with key journalists. He had an instinctive feel for how a narrative would play out in the short and long term. 

Bell worked on all three of Thatcher’s election campaigns but always as a consultant and via a number of different companies. He would take credit for softening Thatcher’s previously harsh image (even her voice) from the 1970s, for bringing Rupert Murdoch onside and the famous "Labour isn't working" poster, which was to prove a hammer blow during the 1979 election campaign.

Bell Pottinger

He went on to set up Bell Pottinger with Piers Pottinger – one of the UK PR industry’s biggest consultancies for two decades. At its peak, Bell Pottinger pulled in fee incomes of about £50m per annum and employed as many as 300 people.

In tribute to his pioneering spirit and his gainful employment of hundreds of people over the decades, Bell was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2016 (pictured, below).

But Bell proved to be as divisive a figure in the comms business as his mentor Thatcher was in the political world. He has always openly expressed his right-wing political views, which offended many. This free-market libertarianism extended to his consultancy work for politicians around the world, sometimes with dubious records on human rights.

Perhaps most notoriously, this included Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was placed under house arrest in Britain in 1998 as part of an attempt to deport him to Spain, where he had been indicted on a charge of torturing Spanish citizens.

Bell and his allies are alleged to have been behind two years of legal and political wrangling, which led to Pinochet being allowed to return freely to Chile.

He always argued, with some intellectual cogency, that everyone is entitled to commercial advocacy in the face of an increasingly aggressive media. This very argument proved central to the exponential growth of the PR industry from the 1980s onwards.

Scandal

Scandal was never far away from the famously indiscreet and chain-smoking Bell.

In 2011, his company was caught boasting about its prowess in the dark arts of search engine manipulation to people it thought were potential clients.

Unfortunately for Bell Pottinger, they were undercover members of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and this led to an exposé in The Independent.

Calling themselves the Azimov Group, these "representatives" said they had ties to the Uzbekistan regime, which has been criticised for repression and for using forced child labour during its cotton harvest.

The Azimov executives said they wanted a bit of reputation cleansing. Tim Collins, Bell Pottinger’s managing director at the time, is recorded offering to help: "You get to the point where even if they type in ‘Uzbek child labour’ or ‘Uzbek human rights violation’, some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is."

Bell never challenged the transcripts, but denounced the sting at the time as an "unethical, underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists".

However, Bell’s biggest scandal began in 2016 with his company’s work for the Gupta brothers in South Africa – an outrage that was to spell the collapse of the agency and ultimately his own humiliation.

Although this was the year that Bell resigned/was finally ousted (depending on whom you believe) from the consultancy that bore his name, there is little doubt that he was instrumental in helping the business win the account with Oakbay Investments.

The following year, Bell Pottinger was outed by opposition party the Democratic Alliance for using more than 100 fake Twitter accounts to stir up racial tension. The campaign distracted attention away from its clients, the Guptas, and their relationship with then president Jacob Zuma.

After weeks of scandal and the agency’s expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association, on 12 September 2017 Bell Pottinger entered administration. And a few days before that, Bell himself appeared on BBC’s Newsnight in what can only be described as a "car crash" interview.

Unusually, Bell seemed unprepared, unfocused, possibly unwell. Presenter Kirsty Wark tore him apart on screen.

Bell’s critics were in rapture, but for those who had dealt with Bell over many years and admired many of his qualities, it felt like a sad moment.

After this, Bell returned to work for the Sans Frontiers consultancy, the geopolitical arm that he took away from Bell Pottinger in 2016. But he maintained a much lower profile, partly owing to deteriorating health.

Putting aside his highly controversial career, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Bell also inspired huge affection and loyalty among his clients and staff. Speak to many alumni of Bell Pottinger and they talk of a man who always has time to advise on careers or help out with personal problems. 

Charm

In person, Bell was warm, charming and polite. Despite his political dogmatism, he was lively company and a better listener than he got credit for. He was also self-deprecating and candid once he trusted you. Even someone with liberal-left views could become his friend and there were numerous examples of this. 

In his memoirs, Right or Wrong (2014), Bell wrote: "Margaret was an outsider – by sex, by upbringing, even in her largely non-collegiate approach – and in many ways she remained an outsider for many in the Tory Party.

"I was also an outsider; not public school, not even university. Certainly not establishment. In fact, I’ve been an outsider all my life and I’ve liked being so. When I started working for the Conservative Party (1978), I was an outsider because I came from the advertising industry – which to politicians in the 70s seemed like the rock-music industry with added insanity. But I understood their world far better than they understood mine."

In spite of starting as an outsider, Bell was made a life peer in 1990. He became hugely wealthy and was a genuine giant of the global PR industry. Through much of his seventies, he continued to come into the office every day, remained an enthusiast and once told PRWeek he would "never retire".

Bell goes down as one of the pioneers of the modern corporate communications consultancy. His integrated approach to advertising and PR has become the norm in corporate and political marketing strategies.

Long before others, Bell understood the convergence between business and geopolitical interests – and how an astute media adviser could play effectively in this space.

Timeline

18 October 1941 Born

1959 Joins ABC Television aged 18 in a role booking ad space

1960s Works for various advertising and PR agencies including Geers Gross

1970 Becomes managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi

1975 Role upgraded to chairman and managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi Compton after merger with Garland-Compton

1979 A key figure in Margaret Thatcher's general election victory. Bell would work on successful general election campaigns for the Conservatives in 1983 and 1987

1985 Becomes deputy chairman of Lowe Group

1987 Becomes chairman of Lowe Bell Communications after buying out Lowe Group's communications arm

1990 Receives knighthood

1994 Becomes chairman of Chime Communications (later Bell Pottinger Group)

1998 Named Lord Bell of Belgravia 

2012 Completes management buyout of Bell Pottinger with James Henderson

2016 Leaves Bell Pottinger to set up Sans Frontiers, an agency focused on global clients. Inducted into the PRWeek UK Hall of Fame

2017 Bell Pottinger placed into administration after fallout from the Oakbay Investments scandal and the agency's expulsion from the PRCA

A version of this article first appeared on PRWeek

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