John Bell: Managing Crises Around the Globe
At the end of the conference on tourism and the media, British travel writer and BBC TV host John Bell gave the closing speech. He ended it with good advice, paraphrasing JFK, when he said, ‘tourism boards, ask not what the media can do for you, ask what you can do for them. Be reachable. Be contactable. Because there is nothing worse than having no reaction when bad things happen…and they inevitably do.”
Over a glass of champagne later, I asked Bell about what he does for work, besides his travel writing and television work for the BBC. Crisis management was his answer.
“I was in Northern Kenya last week,” he said. “A tourist was shot. An Italian, well you might get away with that, but a Brit. That’s the worst!” He works with the agencies that governments hire to make sure their message gets out the right way. “There is nothing worse than silence,” he said. I asked him for a good example of PR gone wrong.
“The Oberoi Hotel bombings in India,” he said. “They took 60 hours to respond to the bombings. The owner was somewhere unreachable and no one would do anything. I rang up the hotel reception and they answered that there were men with guns drawn in the lobby. But no one got anything out until 60 hours later. It was the he worst way to handle it. Silence breeds speculation, which creates uncertainty, and the clients lose control of the situation entirely.
John said his favorite country, of the hundreds he’s visited, is still North Korea. “It’s surreal. It’s like nowhere else in the world,” he said. He recalled being there with other journalists and challenging the North Korean KGB to a bowling contest in a rarely used, and barely known about American style bowling alley. “We beat them, and they had their own cheerleaders! Up there, you can ask someone ‘who are the Beatles?’ and they won’t have any idea. When you buy a radio the tuner can only pick up one station. One!”
He visited Iran last year and the country’s vice president was with their entourage. His American friend was worried that the Iranian official would think he was the devil, fearing what being an American might mean to the man. “I told him to just tell a joke, and it would break the ice. He did, and the VP spent the rest of the trip with them, he loved it.” At one point the VP held his hand during a photograph. John didn’t know what to do, but realized it was a sign that all was well.
Bell teaches video production to British and European students when he’s not managing world PR crises, and sounds like he still gets a big kick out of the traveling life. He’s a man after my own heart, ready to go at the drop of a hat, and never afraid to say hi, tell me your story to anyone, regardless of their politics or reputation.