Tim Bell was a character, larger than life, a bold and passionate advocate for his clients. He and Peter Gummer of Shandwick were the two most significant figures in the reshaping of the UK PR business, with Gummer going on to force the evolution of the global PR market.
I disagree fundamentally with Bell’s “cab rank” decision process on accepting clients. His view was that anybody standing in line for a taxi is eligible for service. That is consistent with the lawyer’s view that every client deserves a defense. Our profession is better than that. We should not defend the indefensible. For example, firms should walk away from the firearms and tobacco industries as both are proven to shorten lives. Nor should we truck with dictators or human rights violators. And above all we should insist upon ethical practice, which Bell Pottinger failed to do in the Gupta case in South Africa.
I will miss Bell’s visibility and willingness to discuss issues. Most PR agency heads are now satisfied to poke their heads up once a year to discuss financial results. That misses the point of our potential positive influence on issues of the day, from diversity and inclusion to fake news to sustainability. We should be a force for good in society.
I do not like the characterization of PR in many of the obituaries. Bell’s life as a spinmeister, hobnobbing with the Fleet Street journalists while mixing with the Great and the Good, reminds me of my late colleague John Scanlon, who had a similar dual-world existence. This is not a business of the dark arts; it is truth well told.
Lord Bell was an eccentric and a showman, in much the same way as a real estate developer, with fancy cars, photos on the walls of the office with celebrities and politicians, and the ever-present pack of Dunhills. He brought the practice of public affairs into public relations, a pugnacious spirit with tactics justified by the results. We should take the best of him and recognize the shortcomings as lessons in how we can all do better.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.