Allow me to begin, somewhat cautiously, with a disclaimer: I do not agree with many of the political or moral views of Tim Bell, the legendary ex-S&S lobbying supremo who has found himself continually in the spotlight since the emergence of the Bell Pottinger scandal last year. Without going too far into it, I have conducted my business in a manner quite different to the manner in which he has conducted his, and there are reasons for this. He might argue it’s a reason why his business is much bigger
However, I could not help but be sincerely impressed by his appearance on Newsnight on Tuesday. Hauled up in front of Paxman as an unofficial spokesman for a whole industry, he cut an imposing figure, singled out from the mob of commentariat who’d been debating the issue of government trust more generally just prior. He proceeded to give a dignified and restrained defence of his profession which successfully placed most of the blame for recent wrongdoings onto the government, acknowledged whatever issues he was beholden to acknowledge and pretty much silenced Paxman.
Aside from anything else, Bell’s commitment to maintaining a passionate and engaged defence of his company’s work must have come as a much-needed morale boost to Bell Pottinger employees. Lord knows they’ll be in need of some TLC in the wake of the PRCA investigation and all clear. It’s a remarkable thing to see such a powerful and inspiring figurehead in a modern business, no matter what the nature of that business is. History shows us that most great PR companies have had a strong figurehead to guide them through calm and stormy waters alike.
His defence might be broken down into three equally effective strands. Bell began with a variant on the Kenneth Clarke ‘fuss about nothing’ shtick- ‘Salesmanship in a sales meeting is perfectly reasonable’ he said of allegations of ‘boasting’ directed at Tim Collins. He moved on to question the qualifications of those savaging his profession- ‘you haven’t the faintest idea what a lobbyist is’ he told Paxman. Finally, he delivered a powerful tour de force: a demand that the media acknowledge the necessity of lobbying in some form. Of the proposed Statutory Register of Lobbyists (which, at least publicly, he stated no objections to), he pointed out that a selection of the country’s most august investigative journalists are currently lobbying to bring such a thing into being.
I’m reminded of Edward Bernays- another man expert at turning self-defence into advertising. His 1928 book ‘Propaganda’- a familiar tome on the shelves of any PR- has often been hailed not only as an apology for the PR industry but a work of propaganda in itself. Bernays picked up a fair few clients through the release of the book, in which he subtly manages to plug virtually all of his own greatest hits.
It’s pretty easy to imagine any powerful figure from the business world watching Bell’s performance and marking him down for future hire. Certainly I can think of a number of FTSE 100 companies for whom this will have been a welcome reminder of his influence and skill set. There are many good reasons why lobbyists and corporate PRs shun publicity (ROLAND Rudd, supposedly the most powerful man in the PR industry according to the PRWeek powerbook, is famously averse). However, Bell proves that, if you do it right, publicity needn’t open you up to ridicule, no matter how unpopular your work.