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PR guru Lord Tim Bell on advising dictators and Margaret Thatcher

December 9th, 2014
02:56 PM ET

By Madalena Araujo, CNN

Public relations can be a tricky industry when you’re dealing with notorious clients.

Lord Tim Bell knows that better than most people, having advised some of the world’s most controversial personalities, including Chilean general Augusto Pinochet, dictatorial Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma al-Assad.

“I've discovered,” Bell told CNN’s Amanpour on Monday, “you may not believe this, but I've discovered that in my life in advertising, and my life in public relations, that telling the truth is a damn sight more effective than not telling the truth.”

“So I tend to opt for the truth – if I’m told it. Now the problem I have is that I'm a conduit. So somebody tells me what happened, I don't know whether that's right or wrong.”

The king of spin said that what drove him to write his new memoir, “Right or Wrong”, was the thought that what he’d “experienced was worth telling people, not because I thought it would be fascinating and change the world, but because it just seemed to me to be necessary for somebody to speak up for the right-of-center thinking, which very few people talk about now.”

Bell, Chairman of Bell Pottinger public relations, is best known for advising friend and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, with a Conservative campaign under the slogan "Labour Isn't Working."

He told Amanpour that Thatcher, who “was a very old-fashioned politician,” didn't understand the campaign at first.

“This case - it actually had the other man's name in the headline, ‘Labour Isn't Working.’ Tory politicians don't put up posters saying Labour. They put up posters saying Conservative.”

“So she was at first rather shocked by it and said why on Earth would I want to buy lots and lots of posters and put the other man's name up?”

Bell said he ultimately convinced “The Iron Lady” by telling her “it was a double entendre.”

“And Margaret - if you ever met her - looked at me with those sort of piercing eyes and said, ‘Oh, it's a double entendre, is it, dear? I hope the country gets it, just like you do.’”

Amanpour asked Bell if he would you ever advise the Labour Party, to which the PR expert replied promptly: “No, because I completely loathe Socialism.”

He would also not work for the 90-year-old leader of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, he said, “because he is basically a very evil man. He doesn't care how much damage he does to people, doesn't care what poverty they live through.”

“He uses violence and aggression to get his own way and he runs what effectively is an army police state.”

Why, then, did he represent Alexander Lukashenko, who has been described as the last dictator of Europe?

“The reason I worked for him is because he told me that he was going to try and make the democracy in Belarus work much better, have fairer elections, release the people who were in prison for political reasons. That he did. He released 18 people.”

“And he was going to try and mend the sanctions arrangement that existed with the European Union.”

“Unfortunately, after six months, it became quite clear he wasn't going to do that. So we resigned the account and walked away.”

Bell thinks “there isn't a PR strategy” that can help Russian President Vladimir Putin right now, but believes “there's a way of getting him out” of Crimea, which Russia annexed earlier this year.

“Putin pays for Crimea,” he said, clarifying “pays money, pays $500 million or 1,000 million dollars or a trillion, whatever, and then he gives the money to the Ukraine, the Ukrainians mend their economy. They make the rest of the Ukraine into a very prosperous country.”

And the slogan for that campaign would read "Make Putin Pay,” he grinned.

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