An unapologetic approach to PR - but I would tread carefully, Lord Bell

This week saw PRWeek carry a profile of PR heavyweight Tim Bell to coincide with the recent publication of his memoirs, which chart the story of his ascent in the industry.

Tim Priestman: media consultant at Smarts PR
Tim Priestman: media consultant at Smarts PR

Lord Bell is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger which, according to PRWeek, is ranked fifth among the top 150 PR consultancies.

He is certainly candid about his views on certain types of clients and the way in which PR operates, as well as the effect of digitalisation on the media landscape. And, unsurprisingly, the man who among other things was Margaret Thatcher’s right-hand comms man is definitely on the traditional side of the fence. And he’s pretty candid about it too – for example, honest criticisms of industries such as banking, despite some of Bell Pottinger's current clients coming from this sector.

Memories of using underhand PR/ lobbying tactics back in the 80s and his scepticism about the validity of social media platforms also help portray a man who is happy to tell it how he thinks it is.

However, in Bell’s defence, much of this is in reflection and does not necessarily apply to his firm’s current culture. What is clear is that Bell has not only become one of the most recognisable names in the industry through ability, but also through the unapologetic nature that some might criticise him for. His memoirs, though, are squarely focused on leveraging the power of networking and contacts, rather than developing a particular applied ‘art’. Details on his advice surrounding crisis management hardly stand out from the crowd. However, what seems to have won the day is his tenacity, determination and – crucially – contacts on both the client and media relations sides of the fence.

The landscape has clearly altered since Bell’s heyday. However, some of his views will ring true with many who wouldn’t agree publicly – but might behind closed doors.

The journalist writing the wider profile makes an interesting point when he indicates that although admirable, Bell’s personal opinions on how PR works are perhaps a little simplistic and outdated. There will no doubt be a split between readers who commend him for his honesty and those that feel being so candid might cause wider damage to the brand he represents.

Personally, I think Bell is on fairly safe ground. Not embracing the obvious increase in the roles that contemporary PR plays and the need to engage more directly with customer groups on behalf of clients is a slight a chink in his armour; however, given the size and influence of Bell Pottinger, I’m certain agency practice is deeply ingrained in digitalisation and ensuring PR efforts work as hard as possible for clients.

PR has a rich and, at times, complex history that should take account of its past but also acknowledge the increasing need to be flexible, wear multiple hats and better demonstrate that activity is driving measurable results that increase clients’ bottom lines.

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