Is the media mogul dead?
The future of a great tradition rests with Lord Bell
It’s been a bad week to be an invincible communications overlord. With WPP’s Martin Sorrell on the receiving end of the encouragingly named "shareholder spring", we’ve seen a decrease in moustache-twirling in the once engagingly despotic world of global public relations. Is there room in the brave new caring, sharing, transparent world of communications for a good old fashioned media tsar?
If there is, the mantle must be taken up by Lord Bell. The former Thatcher spin doctor and recent Paxman sparring partner has successfully negotiated a deal with Chime to buy a section of its PR businesses for a total sum of £19.6m. He spoke to industry bible PRWeek:
We’re going to run a private company and our private lives will become private again. I’m relishing the opportunity and I’m sure my colleagues are as well.
The arched eyebrow and slow, finger by finger tap on the solid ivory desk are left to one’s imagination.
The newly formed BPP Communications takes Bell Pottinger Public Relations, Chime's 60 percent stake in Pelham Bell Pottinger, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières and Bell Pottinger Middle East. This leaves Chime to operate its remaining PR businesses under the lobbying-free "Good Relations Group", headed by the disappointingly cheery current Bell Pottinger group chairman Kevin Murray. According to the Holmes Report, Chime will:
Invest the proceeds of the sale in its faster growing businesses: sports marketing, digital communications and healthcare communications.
Not exactly Citizen Kane, but with Chime’s share price climbing by 11 per cent by lunchtime on the day of the deal, clearly investors didn’t care. Easy to see why Investec make disparaging reference to "the PR distraction" in their approving comments on the deal from Chime's perspective.
The question that now must be asked is how the UK lobbying industry is going to launder its image if it wants to be seen as a valuable area of development. Every day Leveson, reading out SMS messages like a disapproving classics teacher, does further damage to the myth of the direct line – a lobbyist’s stock in trade – as a thrillingly effective magic button. As the unease caused by the Independent's sting on Bell Pottinger wears off, calls for a mandatory register of lobbyists have been forgetten, yet the industry continues to flounder. And Martin Sorrell’s other troubles have hardly been alleviated by his perceived attachments to a dodgy business.
The industry’s image is something even Bell has on his mind. He concludeds his comments to PRWeek with an upsettingly mundane revelation:
A proposed name for the holding company was Backgammon, but this was later dismissed as it sounded as if they were calling the new venture "a gamble".
Clearly there’s just no place in this world for spy novel theatrics or board game analogies any more.