At the IPRA Public Relations World Congress in Dubai, Lord Bell said that the PR industry is a “lightning rod for mistrust”, during a speech that considered the reputation of the PR business.
The Bell Pottinger supremo added that he saw no solution to this issue, after reiterating his view that “everybody has the right to representation.”
“The fact remains that, taking on a client good or bad, it is our reputation at stake,” said Bell. “There is a lack of understanding, and we do not do enough to dispel that lack of understanding.”
“We become the lightning rod for that mistrust,” he continued. “It is something we have to learn to live with. That makes us an easy target for the media. By working with one side we will always be construed as being against the other.”
Bell pointed to the firm’s work for Belarus in 2008, which at the time faced numerous sanctions and scrutiny of its human rights record. “Good PR needs substance,” he said, noting that Bell Pottinger only accepted the contract after being satisfied that Belarus was committed to positive change.
During Bell Pottinger’s work for Belarus, said Bell, three top political prisoners were released from prison, parliamentary elections were “slightly better”, and the EU dropped travel sanctions. “Was it a success for the reputation of Bell Pottinger?” asked Bell. “Bell Pottinger was vilified in the press. I was personally abused. No attempt was made to understand what we were doing. The result was we were branded as toxic and immoral.”
Eventually, the firm terminated the contract, said Bell, because “Belarus reneged on its promises”, and sanctions were reinstated.
Bell delivered the speech amid expectations that he will soon buy Bell Pottinger back from Chime Communications. Afterwards, in a wide-ranging interview with the Holmes Report, he discussed why private ownership is an attractive option for agency leaders, and the controversy that his firm has generated in recent months.
A number of firms have bought themselves out of publicly-owned companies in recent months. Does that trend surprise you?
No. People who start public relations companies are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial people carry on being entrepreneurial. It’s quite difficult being entrepreneurial inside a large corporation, because one of the tragedies of business life is that entrepreneurs start businesses by taking risks and they get bigger and bigger and bigger, so the risk gets bigger, and so they stop taking risks. But the people within it want to go on taking risks, so they find it a stifling environment and they go on and do something else.
Do you think it’s a better situation for a PR agency to be privately-owned, rather than part of a publicly-listed entity?
Either can be good. It just depends on what happens to you. And people change their minds. The time for a change is in the air.
From a commercial perspective, as an entrepreneur, do you find it dissatisfying being part of a publicly-owned entity?
I think the stock market doesn’t value public relations businesses to the same extent that it values other marketing businesses and that’s frustrating.
Why do you think that is?
They are exclusively people businesses and the stock market doesn’t trust people. It’s much more comfortable with minerals or gadgets.
How long do you plan on staying in the business?
I think you’ll have to ask your God. Maybe he can ask my God, and both of them can get together and tell me when I’m stopping. I don’t know.
So you’re still enjoying it?
How do you see growth prospects for the industry?
We’ve had a couple of really bad downturns. 2000, but that was because the industry got overheated, so it was a self-inflicted bubble if you like. The other time it had a big downturn was probably way back in the early 70s, and I think that was simply because we had lost our credibility with corporates. They went through a bad time so they cancelled their comms and marketing budgets, which is a particularly stupid thing to do if you’re experiencing a lack of growth. I think the industry will grow and grow and grow. Fortunately it’s at different states of its growth rates in different parts of the world, and as you can operate internationally you can move around the world.
You said the PR industry has become a “lightning rod for mistrust”. Why do you think you attract so much of that attention?
I have absolutely no idea. I think I’m absolutely lovely. But some people don’t think I am, so they attack me. The answer is because I’m at the top of the tree. I say that immodestly, I’m somewhere near the top of the tree and I have been for some time. Tall poppy syndrome applies to our industry the same as everything else. What’s the point of attacking somebody nobody’s ever heard of? It’s much more fun to attack me, or the Saatchi brothers, or Matthew Freud, or Max Clifford. Attack somebody who’s visible. I didn’t want to be visible, but I am. We shouldn’t get between our clients and the footlights but we do. Sometimes we do it by accident, sometimes we do it deliberately. When we do it deliberately we’re stupid. When we do it by accident…we all make mistakes.
Do you think the spotlight will differ whether you are publicly- or privately-owned?
Obviously, there are regular moments for public companies when they are scrutinised. There aren’t any regular moments for private companies. So the media has to decide whether to make an investigation. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. But the particular notoriety that I enjoy is caused by fraudulent journalism. So I’m not going to make any comment about that. When the PCC opines on my complaint, I hope they’ll opine favourably. If they don’t it doesn’t mean my complaint isn’t true. It’s very simple - it’s an argument between undercover reporting or entrapment.