x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

How to talk your way out of a crisis

Lord Bell, the British PR figure, talks about how solutions to the credit crisis could have been spun better.

Does a credit crisis, by any other name, still sting as badly? Lord Bell - that is, Tim Bell, the British public relations figure who gained fame helping to propel Margaret Thatcher into office, and notoriety for taking on clients such as the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and president Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus - does not necessarily think so. A strong believer in the power of words to shape perceptions and events, he has trouble understanding how the US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson and his colleagues failed to design a better brand for their financial band-aid.

"One of the things that infuriates me is that neither Paulson nor Bernanke or for that matter the president actually bothered to get any comms [communications] people in while they were creating the US$700 billion (Dh2.57 trillion) bailout, because I can assure you we wouldn't have called it a bailout, we would have called it a rescue package," he told an audience at the inaugural lecture of the Arab Media Group's Thinkers in Dubai series. "It would have been a lot more readily accepted by the public."

Making sure ideas are accepted by the public is a matter in which he has considerable experience. Lord Bell helped to found Saatchi & Saatchi, the global advertising company, in 1970. He later went on to form his own PR company, Lowe Bell Communications, and in 1994 became the chairman of Chime Communications. Chime includes the Bell Pottinger Group, which today has offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Bahrain and advises clients such as Emirates airline and DP World.

He is best known for his role as an adviser in Mrs Thatcher's three successful election campaigns. She knighted him in 1990. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, later made him a life peer. In Lord Bell's role as adviser to Mrs Thatcher, he often found himself having to communicate complex economic ideas to the wider public. "We abandoned the whole idea of trying to explain what inflation was," he said. "We simply convinced everybody that if it went down, it was bad, which worked. And I think now that if Libor [the London interbank offered rate] goes up, it's bad and if it goes down, it's good."

But he believes that the media's enormous power as an economic educator can sometimes be dangerous. "There is no doubt that this crisis has been made worse by the speed with which fear and lack of confidence and bad sentiment spread, and no doubt that the prime method of spreading information has been the media," he said. "Maybe the media has been overly negative. Maybe the media has distorted the elements of it that people have seen. We've rechristened Bloomberg 'Gloomberg', and there's no doubt that every day throughout the crisis, Bloomberg has revelled in 'the greatest fall in 20 years', and so on."

However, he is quick to warn against blaming the media completely. "It does have to have something to work with. It can't create financial confidence out of the blue." More than anything, he argues that the media is a powerful tool that must be used skillfully to create favourable impressions. As another example of how this did not happen, he pointed to the initial press surrounding the purchase of the Manchester City Football Club by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment. The matter is close to his heart, as he had been hired by the team's former owner, the former prime minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra, to improve his relations with the public of Manchester and the football community.

"I think what happened in the takeover of Manchester City is the media didn't help you, because the story leaked, almost certainly leaked by Thaksin," he said, adding that the former prime minister had a habit of gossiping to journalists. He believes the spin on the story is improving over time, but the team's current owners might learn a few things from the ousted Thai prime minister, who went out of his way to connect to the public. "He went to every match, walked among the crowd and opened Thai restaurants," he said. "He really made a huge impact."

In a nod to the title of his lecture - The Gulf in Western Eyes: Business Partners, or Bankers of Last Resort? - he called Mr Shinawatra's PR strategy "a model from my view of how you should shift from being a banker to being a business partner". Lord Bell has done work for the government of Iraq, the Saudi royal family and Syria, and has travelled extensively in the Middle East. He was optimistic about the role the region, and particularly the GCC, could play in global markets in the future.

"I do think there's an enormous opportunity for the Gulf region to become even more important," he said. If he had any overarching message, it was a salesman's pitch: get "comms people", as he refers to those in his trade, involved early and often. As evidence, he held up his most recent victory. Lord Bell was hired in July to help improve the image of Mr Lukashenko, whose regime the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the "last dictatorship in Europe" in 2006. Specifically, the Belarusian government asked Lord Bell to persuade the EU to drop a visa ban on Belarus officials. Earlier this week, the EU decided to lift its travel ban on Mr Lukashenko in an attempt to encourage democratic reform.

But there were still some obstacles to overcome in the effort to polish Mr Lukashenko's image. "He has a moustache, which I wish he would shave off," Lord Bell said. "I did tell him that all dictators have moustaches." khagey@thenational.ae