International aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — or Doctors Without Borders — has asked Britain’s best known and most controversial public relations expert to change the name of his new firm, saying it could put its humanitarian work and staff at risk.
Lord Bell, formerly Tim Bell, is famous as the marketing brain behind Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Off the back of that he created a worldwide network which only last month collapsed in a scandal over influence-peddling and corruption in South Africa — a crisis he insists had nothing to do with him and everything to do with executives who took over the firm.
Last year he launched Sans Frontières Associates as a communications and advisory consultancy as he disconnected himself from his eponymous firm, Bell Pottinger. That firm had, over time, developed a reputation for advising controversial clients such as the authoritarian government of Belarus. However, it effectively fell apart when it was ejected on September 4 from the UK’s public relations industry body over an advertising campaign in South Africa deemed to be racially inflammatory.
Médecins Sans Frontières has now written to Bell requesting he change the name of the new firm.
“We are concerned that this choice of name could cause confusion between our two organizations, with the potential to put MSF’s work and staff at risk as a result,” Vickie Hawkins, executive director of MSF UK, said in a statement sent to WikiTribune. “MSF’s reputation as an independent, impartial organisation is crucial to our ability to deliver medical aid around the world to those who need it the most,” she added.
PR without borders
The Sans Frontières phrase – meaning Without Borders – is used by several organizations in the civil society world, including the Paris-based freedom-of-speech group Reporters Sans Frontières or Reporters Without Borders. Médecins Sans Frontières is the most famous group associated with the concept and was founded by former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner to offer medical services in the world’s most dangerous places.
“It is of utmost importance for MSF to safeguard clear identification worldwide and avoid potential risks of confusion between MSF and other groups who may not share the same values and respect the same code of conduct,” the MSF letter — shared with WikiTribune – said.
Bell told WikiTribune he has “no intention” to change the name of Sans Frontières Associates.
“Hundreds of companies use ‘Sans Frontières’ in their names. I’ve been using it for 15 years and it’s never caused any problems,” he said, pointing out that he had used the phrase for a division of Bell Pottinger.
Bell Pottinger plunged into crisis — and financial administration in September — after South African investigative journalists exposed its role in a social-media campaign which used racially inflammatory slogans as part of a program to support the economic interests of the controversial Gupta family which is close to President Jacob Zuma. The details of the case are in this report from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).
According to South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Bell Pottinger’s ad campaign in support of Zuma – with slogans including “#whitemonopolycapital” – was aimed at “exploiting racial tensions.” The UK’s public relations industry body – the PRCA – stripped Bell Pottinger of membership on September, triggering a chain reaction that led to the firm going into administration, a form of bankruptcy under British commercial law.
Bell was involved in securing the South African contract but has tried to distance himself from the entire affair, accusing others at the firm of wrecking the business he created.
PR vultures circle
“I resigned from the company in August last year, published my resignation and I said one of the reasons I was leaving was because of the Gupta account,” Bell said in a television interview on the BBC. The interview instantly became a masterclass in how not to handle a public relations crisis, creating a delicious moment of schadenfreude for his many enemies.
When asked about the crisis engulfing his old firm, Bell replied to the BBC interviewer: “I think it can best be summed up by Walter Scott: what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
Médecins Sans Frontières — which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 — said that the aid group’s request for Bell to drop the similar name was not “in any way questioning the quality of the work conducted by your group and its members.”
When Bell left his long-term firm to launch Sans Frontières Associates last year, he brought partner Jonathan Lehrle with him. Lehrle became Sans Frontières Associates’ new company’s managing director in January. In total, six of the eight advisors profiled on the Sans Frontières Associates website previously worked at Bell Pottinger.