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Financial Times

Lord Bell of Chime Communications. May 8, 2001. By TIM SIR BELL and SATHNAM SANGHERA.

This is totally off the record you understand, and I'm only telling you because I trust you not to take it any further, but Lord Bell, head of Chime Communications, Britain's number one public relations outfit, chair of the Conservative's Keep the Pound Campaign, and one-time spin doctor for Margaret Thatcher, is the interviewee from hell.

He's not difficult in the way that most PR people are difficult - he doesn't write rambling, illiterate press releases, for instance, or get my name wrong or make annoying, pointless phone calls - but he's difficult in that he knows every trick in the media handbook and knows exactly how to avoid embarrassment.

Not only is he unremittingly articulate, unflappable, and phenomenally well-versed in the art of press interviews (he even stops talking when it's time to turn over the tape in the dictaphone), but he also insists that I run the quotes past him before publication.

"Can't I just check the facts with you?" I squeak in response, fearing that the final piece will be full of the bland, useless pronouncements usually found in corporate press releases. "That's what we normally do." But Bell, who grants formal interviews as frequently as the rest of us remortgage our houses, won't have any of it. There's an awkward silence and, eventually, I concede, hoping that he won't have the nerve to actually try to change anything.

In the event, he hardly tinkers with a word, but one wonders whether such control-freakery is just one of Bell's quirks, an example of the skills he so frequently uses to benefit his clients, or just symptomatic of the paranoia currently enveloping the PR industry.

Certainly, PR feels like it is under siege. Programmes like Absolutely Fabulous suggest that the industry is peopled by brainless Sloanes who can't find anything else to do, while the media's self-centred obsession with government spin doctors has made the public increasingly suspicious of the publicity machines. Most recently, of course, there has been the saga of Sophie Rhys-Jones, the countess of Wessex, and her business partner Murray Harkin, whose PR company was targeted by a News of the World sting operation.

Bell, sitting on the top floor of his Mayfair offices, chain-smoking and alternately slurping coffee and mineral water, is quick to defend the industry."I'm fascinated by that Sophie thing," he says. "If I pretended to be somebody else when I went to see a client I'd be put in prison for fraud and I really don't understand why journalists are allowed to do it. I can't believe it's in the public interest.

"I don't think the world was sitting there waiting to find out what Sophie Wessex might or might not have said in a phoney interview. All it showed was that some people in this business can be indiscreet and careless about the things they say. This is hardly earth-shattering."

"It's true that if you pick all the young people in the business you will find inexperience and you'll get mistakes. But if you pick the slightly older people, you won't. I think the PR business has falsely got an image of being about 19- and 20-year-old girls with ear-pieces and pagers and mobile telephones, but that isn't what it's about at all.

"It's about serious people sitting at the tops of large businesses talking about how they can make a difference to something in the marketplace. Yes, when it's bad, it's bad, but isn't that true for everything?"

If there's anyone qualified to defend the public relations industry, it is Bell. Arguably Britain's most successful PR man, he has not only advised at the very highest level - with clients ranging from Boris Yeltsin, David Mellor and Sarah Ferguson to the Meat and Livestock Commission just hours before the "mad cow" crisis broke - but he also spent years at the top of the advertising industry as managing director and international chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Margaret Thatcher was charmed the moment they met in 1977 and continued to rely on his judgment even after he left Saatchi & Saatchi in the mid-1980s. It was to him that Thatcher turned when the 1987 election seemed in doubt.

Bell left Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985 to join advertising man Frank Lowe in the building up of Lowe Bell Communications. Now, after the flotation of the company in 1994, the group goes by the name of Chime Communications, and has added advertising to its strong PR capabilities.

Last month the Institute of Public Relations awarded Bell the President's medal for distinguished service to public relations. "Certainly, he's the closest thing we have to an industry champion and a very welcome antidote to Max Clifford," says Kate Nicholas, editor of PR Week. "He has shown that our industry is more than media relations - it's about wider communications strategies."

But Bell is by no means universally acknowledged as a communications genius. Indeed, there are more than enough people who take precisely the opposite view. These critics particularly enjoy trotting out the example of 1994's 50th anniversary D-Day celebrations. Bell's company was hired by the government - for a reported fee of Pounds 62,500 - to advise on organising the events.

The proposals for a "fun day" - street parties and so on - were condemned by D-Day veterans as being an inappropriate way to commemorate an event in which 37,000 British troops had died. The scheme was abandoned amid scathing publicity and tabloid newspapers' calls for Bell to return his fee.

Other critics prefer to draw attention to his political work, which, they say, demonstrates that he will work for anyone as long as the price is right. In 1989, during Chile's elections, Bell was employed to promote the dictator Pinochet's favoured candidate: ex-finance minister Herman Buchi. Later, in 1994, he represented President De Klerk's National Party in the South African elections.

But Bell is far from embarrassed - rather, he says the experience in South Africa was one of the highlights of his career. "It was very, very exciting because there were predictions that it would be very violent and racist and unpleasant, but it wasn't at all - it was a very successfully run campaign.

"Working for what was effectively the white party, the Afrikaans party, was quite difficult. But it was fascinating watching millions of people getting their first ever chance to vote and seeing one of the great evils of the world, apartheid, be undone. It was very interesting - we had to make sure we didn't do anything inflammatory, however tempting it was."

Bell's darkest hour, however, undoubtedly came in 1997 when he was an influential but informal adviser to the Conservative Party during the election campaign. On top of the frustration of helping mould a strategy which, according to Bell, was inevitably going to fail, February 1997 saw the serialisation in the Observer of a biography that claimed Bell had used drugs and had, in the 1970s, been fined for indecent exposure.

Bell splutters at the mere mention of the book and says, sternly: "I have never commented on the content of the book and nor will I, ever. I have never met the author, he's never met me, everybody who knows me refused to participate in the book.

I haven't read it, I have no intention of reading it, and I think it's disgusting that a man can make a huge amount of money out of writing filth and abuse and rumour and falsehood about somebody."

Nowadays, Bell has a slightly lower profile - he is not involved so centrally in this year's Conservative election campaign and he says that he spends less time doing the kind of face-to-face consultancy for which he has become famous.

"I'm an operating manager - I'm not a financial manager - so I do work with clients, but over the years my direct coal-face hours have reduced because the company has become more complex. We now have a raft of senior people to deal with clients - I probably handle only seven or eight clients at any one time. Some of these things I don't talk a lot about, because they are confidential."

Indeed, it is, perhaps, this kind of secretiveness which makes people distrust the PR industry. Image makers rarely reveal the nature of the advice they are giving to their clients, and clients rarely let on what they are being told.

It has been reported that when, in the 1980s, Bell was recruited to make the chairman of the coal board, Ian McGregor, look more attractive to the public, his main proposal was that McGregor should wear light suits to hide his dandruff. Surely there is more to PR consultancy than this? What do people like Bell, who supposedly earns fees of Pounds 750 an hour, actually do during their consultancy work?

"We give advice," he says bluntly, as if the answer is too obvious to need stating. "We work with a very simple brief: the client asks, where am I now, where do I want to be, how do I get there? We translate the whole of the strategy into a communications strategy because we believe that people's reputations are made up of what they say about themselves, what they do, and what other people say about them."

Some may not be particularly enlightened by this explanation, but the people who matter are. Public figures and blue-chip companies still flock to his door. But there have been suggestions that since Labour's election win in 1997, Bell's magic has slowly been fading, as his access to government has reduced.

When his company lost the British Airways account in 1998, there were reports that it was to a large degree due to his "outdated" Conservative connections. Last month, eyebrows were raised when BSkyB moved its public affairs, corporate and financial PR accounts from Bell to a start-up consultancy headed by former BSkyB communications chief and adviser to Tony Blair, Tim Allan.

Although Lord Bell and Bell Pottinger, Chime's PR business, have been retained as high-end strategic corporate advisers, the move marked the end of a decade-long contract. It was interpreted as an indicator of Rupert Murdoch's change of political allegiance from the Conservatives to Labour, and as an indicator of Bell's decreasing influence.

"Let's get the facts straight," he growls "I'm continuing to work with the board of BSkyB. Tim Allan decided he was going to start his own business. He asked Sky whether they would give him their account and they said yes. Sky has a history of helping people who have worked for it.

It is a pioneering company.

"The reason for the change was nothing to do with bad work, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with diminution of skill or importance, nothing whatsoever to do with Rupert Murdoch, who was not involved in the decision, and entirely to do with the fact that Sky wanted to help Tim Allan start his own business."

Indeed, even if his access to the top echelons of government has reduced, there are no signs that his business is flagging. Chime recently reported that in the year to December 31, annual profits increased by 43 per cent and its roster of clients rose from 877 to 1,207, adding new contracts from Glaxo SmithKline and MFI, among others.

Recent speculation that he is thinking of retiring - Bell hits 60 this October - is rubbish, he says. "When I can't do it any more I hope that I will spot it, or my colleagues will point it out, and I will clear off. But I like business. I like business people, I like politicians. I am a very social animal. I like going to lunch, I like going to dinner, I like talking to people.

"So I don't think I'll retire. I give advice - I can't see myself retiring from that because I'm a nosey, interfering person, and it's impossible for me not to keep on commenting on things."