Christine Bell: Confident, bright and woman — the face of modern public relations

Christine Bell: Confident, bright and woman — the face of modern public relations

Farewell Christine Ann Bell

Sunday, March 11, 2012

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Public relations specialist, journalist and actress Christine Ann Bell passed away on Friday, February 24, 2012 and was laid to rest on Saturday, March 3, 2012 after a funeral service at the Temple of Light Centre for Spiritual Living, followed by a morning of celebration at the Hope Felowship Church, Kingston. In this final tribute, we reproduce excerpts of a story tracing her exceptional life from origins at Ritchies, Clarendon, and produced from the award-winning The Desmond Allen Interviews series published in December 2004

IN an era where information rules, image is everything. And in the fiercely competitive, often cut-throat globalised marketplace where everything, from a pin to an anchor, must sell urgently, the superior creators of image and manufacturers of spin seem indispensable.

Top public relations practitioners, like Christine Bell, maintain a safe distance from the perception that PR experts are spin doctors, amoral types who paper over cracks and try to freshen up even foul odour. Bell's type of PR practice is about bridging the gap between clients and their publics. And Christine Bell is so good at it, she might have been born to this end, except that it could be argued that she does so many other things well.

When she left her high-energy, low-paying journalism job to pursue her talent in public relations, Bell set up Innovative Ideas and fashioned the company to stay on the cutting edge of image-creation. Small, fit and vibrant, the company quickly captured the imagination of corporate Jamaica, where the hunger for credibility is surpassed only by the need to make profits. And sometimes the two are inseparable.

It helps, doesn't it, to be pretty, articulate and bright? Bell has added to that a discipline that could be traced to a policeman father, a confidence bequeathed by a devoted mother and a creativity born of a passion for life. Let's not forget: she's woman too. It's the combination of those characteristics that has made her the essence of modern public relations practice in Jamaica. And why the governing board of editors of the American Biographical Institute has named her among their nominees for their Woman of the Year — 2004 title.

In her several lives, Bell has conquered the stage with a career that demands an entire résumé of its own and including several top awards for outstanding performances, such as her 2000 'Best Actress in a Lead Role' title in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. She's equally comfortable on screen, most recently as the infuriatingly naïve Rose Madden in the CVM-TV soap opera, Royal Palm Estate. Radio audiences will remember the popular drama, Beverley Heights, which she co-wrote for RJR, as well as the JBC's Uptown Downtown and the JIS Radio's Barnsville Gap.

Brown skin, tall hair

It's a long way now from Ritchies, the sleepy Clarendon village where her mother, Zillabel Rose nee Tomlin, lived at the time Christine was born on November 3, 1952.

Zillabel, then a teacher at the Belcaris Basic School in Ritchies, often had to exercise a firm hand in preventing her husband, the late Aaron Rose from completely spoiling, some might say, recklessly spoiling, his stepdaughter. Her son, Keith Rose, was his father's willing accomplice in the deed. "The way they treated me made me feel that was the norm with all men," Bell chuckles.

Christine's father, the late James William Bell, was at one time the Assistant Commissioner of Police for Area One. Bell's first wife had died and his brief relationship with the strikingly pretty Zillabel produced Christine. Her siblings are: Lloyd Bell, now living in the United States; the twins, Patrick and Carol Bell, teachers in Montego Bay; Dr Jennifer Bell, also in the US, and Keith, a supervisor at the Sugar Industry Research Institute, residing in Vere, Clarendon.

Born at the Mandeville Hospital in the Manchester capital, Christine grew up in Ritchies, a typical rural community where "everybody knew everybody". It was important then to have "brown skin and tall hair". That gave pride of place to the high-brown Rose family, remembered for the fact they had their own pew in church where no one else dared to sit.

People told her that in 1972 after Michael Manley roared into power with much talk of black pride, some other congregants sat in their pew one Sunday. "As the story goes, that was the reason the Roses never came back to that church," Bell recounts. Although her stepfather's father resembled the Roses, Christine knows of no direct relation. "Colour was not an issue for me, even though in the village where I grew up, the terms 'black' and 'ugly' seemed invariably to go together," she insists now.

Christine could read well at three years old, but would find the accomplishment in childhood to be frustrating. When she started Ritchies Primary School at six, she was already too advanced a reader and was put in grade one with the eight-year-olds. The system was based largely on age and the young girl, although coming first in end-of-year exams, was kept for two years in each class. Vexed, her mother sent her to aunt Aneita Small in St Elizabeth, where she was put in a higher class. But sometime after, when she returned to Ritchies, she was reverted to a lower class.

Terror at Ardenne

It was revenge of a sort, though Bell would not have wished it, that in the year that she sat the Common Entrance Examination, hers was the only successful name among the 21 students who sat the exam from that school. She was sent to Ardenne High in Kingston, and during the first year boarded with her step-father's sister. Among the students she remembers at Ardenne were Patrick Bailey, now an attorney- at-law, Marilyn Bennett of Wray and Nephew and Sandra Lyn Shue. The principal was Miss Mary Olsen.

It was an unpleasant time for the young country girl who says that conditions at her aunt's often cheated her of study time. It showed in her behaviour and grades at Ardenne. "I was a bit of a terror at Ardenne. I had felt so put upon during boarding that I became just plain mischievous at school," she admits. But that would soon change.

After that year, she went to live with her dad and his family in Mona Heights, the first major middle class public housing scheme populated largely by civil servants at the time. At the end of his daughter's third year at Ardenne, ACP Bell was transferred to Montego Bay and that was the change that Christine needed. This was 1968. She entered third form at Mount Alvernia High, the Roman Catholic all-girl school, across the road from Cornwall College.

At Mount Alvernia, her grades began to climb as she gradually found herself and place. It helped that her stepmom, Nerissa Bell nee Guy, and sister, Jennifer were teaching there. She developed a thirst for involvement in extra-curricular activities -- dance club, glee club, drama club, debating society, and the like. Bell became a prefect and was made deputy head girl in 1970. Her good friends there included Maureen Whitelocke and Jeanette Gordon, mother of Maia Chung, the fast-rising CVM-TV reporter. Marcia Wong and Veronica Morris, both attorneys in Montego Bay, are also among those she remembers.

Classes at Cornwall College

Sixth form at Mt Alvernia was very small and it was decided to join classes with Cornwall College. "Sixth form was where I really came into my own. I loved that part of high school. In 6th form, you can think outside the box and argue, as long as you can back up your arguments. This was completely different from the tedious 'set-book' work of earlier forms," she reflects.

That, of course, was a reference to an incident the year before, in fifth form, when she had excitedly told her history teacher, Lady Gloria Astwood, what she had done in the O' level history exam. Sounding alarmed, Astwood had exclaimed: "They are going to fail you, Christine. You did an "A' level paper!" Sure enough, she failed and she felt punished. It brought back haunting memories of primary school setbacks for being ahead. But at 'A' levels, she got a distinction for history, noting that she had not even completed the paper. It's the reason even today that she is keen on rewards for children with outstanding performance and recommends it to corporate clients when appropriate.

The link with Cornwall College was right up her street for another reason. She liked interacting with the boys, especially the athletes such as Basil Monteith, Anthony Smellie and Jeff McLeod. "I've always had an insatiable appetite for track and field," she discloses. Monteith and McLeod also taught her to play a vicious game of table tennis.

The JBC years

Upon graduation, she taught prep school for three months while she awaited word from the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) where she had applied for a reporter job. The outstanding journalist, Hector Bernard was general manager when Bell joined the JBC on November 1, 1972, on the eve of her 20th birthday. She started as a junior news editor in the newsroom under Denzil Dunkley, now a lawyer in the States. She remembers Dunkley's vicious red pen ripping through poorly done copies. Those were the days when training was paramount and the style book a constant companion.

She recalls the depth of joy when she finally made the main 5:00 pm newscast, with four stories all at once! "I was over the moon. But the training was wonderful," she says. Pat Bellinfante took over from Dunkley. The newsroom was a vibrant place and the people there, led by Bernard, held Michael Manley, by now prime minister, to his promise that the station would be freed of the politics his People's National Party (PNP) had accused it of in opposition. Bernard would like this young, pretty, but feisty, reporter and Bell would develop great admiration for the awesome veteran. The incomparable John Maxwell was also a member of that newsroom staff.

About a year after she got to the JBC, Bell and reporter Beverley Newell, herself a highly rated communication consultant, were given British Council grants to train at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London. Gladstone Wilson was also at the BBC on a different course at the same time and the three Jamaicans lived at the Hampden home of one Mrs Clithero. They were given intense exposure to a wide scope of journalistic activities. "It was a really superior learning experience," Bell describes it.

In England, she made trips to Brixton, the virtual West Indian colony in London, where "we ate meals we hadn't seen for years in Jamaica". They made friends with a Ghanaian journalist named Kweku Sampong who was a great lover of reggae music and impressed them with his ability to dance like Jamaicans. He introduced them to African cuisine. And Bell says she got her first feel of what it was like to be in a minority when people felt at liberty to touch her braids, and when a detective followed her around in a Piccadilly store. She embarrassed him by laughing, howling really, after asking him if he was following her.

London was cold almost the entire time she was there, and she once stood in the middle of the street and cried because she was so cold. "God, I was such a baby! But I have more than made up for that since," she can laugh now. Following that three-month stint in London, Bell and Newell wanted to see a bit of Europe and took off to Belgium, Holland and France.

Back home, JBC was the centre of her life. Feeling they needed to give her life lessons, the guys used to take her to lyme on the Red Hills Road nightclub strip. She recalls the many pleasant hours spent in the company of people like Patrick "PU" Smikle; Errol Lee of the Bare Essentials; Sheldon McDonald, now with Caricom in Guyana; Carl Campbell who later married another of the newsroom personalities, Monica Hawthorne; Colin Campbell, the first journalist to be named minister of information; Alison Symes, Gillian Crosskill and cameraman Ken Dawson. In the sports department were Hugh Crosskill Jnr, who later married Gillian; Lindy Delapenha and Vin Lumsden.

Leonie Forbes prepared the newsroom staff to read the news and Consie Walters was chief editor. Jim Verity listened out for errors when the news was on air. The rule of thumb was that newsreaders were to arrive 30 minutes before airtime to go over the script.

Bell did well at JBC and was promoted acting head of the station's Western Bureau, based in the tourist resort city of Montego Bay. There she met the affable Carmen Patterson who at the time was bureau secretary. The two would become friends and Patterson, who is highly respected for her communication skills, would later join her at Innovative Ideas.

Desmond Henry, Ralston Smith, Ken Jones

Bell left the JBC after three years, in search of more pay, to pursue journalism studies. This was 1976. She joined Desmond Henry, Ralston Smith and Ken Jones at Public Relations Associates (PRA), whom she described as "consummate professionals". She was assigned the accounts of the Jamaica Tourist Board, the Bureau of Standards and the then Jamaica National Export Corporation (JNEC) that evolved into today's JAMPRO, the one-stop investment clearing house. By 1977, her first son, Iyun was born.

Three years after joining PRA, she enrolled at the Miami-Dade Community College to do an associate degree in journalism. With her JBC experience, she was easily top of her class and was made features editor of the Falcon Times, the leading US college newspaper at the time. She built up extra credits by doing the honours courses in most of her subjects and the college invited her to teach in their writing lab.

About that time, the internationally known Miami Herald newspaper was experimenting with an electronic newspaper called Viewtron and Bell's professor recommended her to join the team. It was an indication of the confidence her professor had in her. She worked the job on weekends, recalling that the computer system took up an entire room, a far cry from the sleek desktop machines of today. But it was a challenging time for the single mom who had to juggle school and care for her son, having decided she was not leaving him behind when she left Jamaica for Miami.

The trickster in Miami

The Miami days would also be memorable for the trickster of a professor who encouraged her to do her final project on West Indian writers, all along planning to use the material for a PhD she was doing. The suggestion for the project had coincided with a request from Ed Wallace who wanted her to do a play she had previously done. Now she had two reasons to return to Jamaica. She got an 'A' for the project, but regarded the professor's cheekiness as "a wake up call".

After graduation, she contemplated the future, having won a scholarship to complete her degree. But she didn't have to think long. One day, her son Iyun rushed into her room, saying: "Mommy, I am a little black boy!" Bell didn't like the idea that her son was being made to feel negatively race conscious and fearing worse was to come, decided they had better head home to Jamaica.

Back on the rock, Peter King, later ambassador, offered her a job to do PR in the Trade Commissioner's Department of the JNEC. She loved the time there and thought King was great to work with. Bell left the JNEC under curious circumstances. She was at work one day when an unnamed political functionary called to enquire if she had passed a "security check" for the job. She had never been politically involved and felt this was an affront. Five months after joining the JNEC, she left, not wanting to subject herself to such 'out-of-orderness'.

Rita Marley and Peter Tosh

Her next brief stop was as PR co-ordinator of Alston Stewart's Nevalco, moving on to become marketing manager for Jamaica and the Caribbean in the Group of Companies owned by reggae legend and widow of Bob Marley, Rita Marley. She treasured the fact of being part of the experience when the company tried to go international. And there was one memorable visit by reggae superstar Peter Tosh, who left a string of colourful words to remember him by.

The time there marked another intense period for Bell. She knew Rita Marley well, from an occasion when Hector Wynter had asked her to do a series of articles on women for The Gleaner, while she worked at PRA. Rita and Seya Parboosingh were two of her interviewees. "Rita was very easy to work with and she was eager to put her own stamp on the business and to take it to another level. For this reason, she got people who could make it happen to work for her," she recounts. But when Bell encountered boorish behaviour from a key executive, she sent in her resignation, having spent just over two years there. Her second son, David, was born during that stint.

George Swire's ultimatum

Carmen Tipling was easily one of the top public relations experts in the country and was looking for someone who fit the mould to add to the formidable team at Communications Consultants Limited (CCL), the firm she had built up with Berl Francis, then managing director and Eunice Bent, the current head of the firm. Tipling, now CEO of the state-run Jamaica Information Service, had no hesitation in hiring Christine Bell.

"For me, it was such an incredible experience in respect of my growth," Bell now says. She remembers how she had panicked when Francis gave her her first speech-writing assignment -- for IBM --protesting that she had never written one before. Francis calmed her by saying: "This is the best time to start." She describes Francis's knowledge as phenomenal and would later collaborate with her when she formed Berl Francis and Company. From Tipling she learnt that PR should never be used to white wash any existing problems. "She always ensured the credibility of her work by identifying the reasons for the problems and factoring in real solutions to them. I always try to follow that ground rule," says Bell.

One of her most memorable clients while at CCL was Earl Patrick, the Berger Paints marketing manager who had "the most complete understanding and knowledge of all the elements within the marketing mix that includes advertising and PR". She also met George Swire, managing director of Delta Supply Company and chairman of Electrical Jamaica Limited (ELARC). It was Swire who insisted that she formed her own company, threatening at one stage never to speak to her again, if she did not. He later provided the seed money to start Innovative Ideas. She remains good friends with Swire and his wife, Juanita.

"When Delta celebrated its 30th anniversary, George spoke of the people who had helped him to grow. This is a man who believes in giving back for the kindness he received," Bell remarks.

After four "precious years" at Communication Consultants, she left the job and looked ahead. This was 1988. She did a brief consultancy with Citizens Bank, where the team included people like Elon Beckford, Clover Batts and Andrew Cocking. That was where she also met the bank's chairman, R Danny Williams whose note of commendation she treasures to this day.

Her old boss at PRA, Desmond Henry was now corporate promotions manager at Dennis Lalor's 26-member ICWI Group, and he recruited her as his assistant. When Henry left, she was promoted to take over his job, working closely with Anil Kalra and Jennifer Cox. At ICWI she got her first full immersion into the culture of a corporate entity, experience that would serve her well five years later.

She also met her best friend, Judith Allen at ICWI, describing her as "one of the brightest and most rounded women she has ever met". Now, finally, the time had come for Christine Bell to launch out on her own.

With Swire's warning ringing in her ears, Bell established Innovative Ideas in 1992. Two of her first contracts were with ICWI and the ICWI Foundation. It was a good thing she had left the company in good standing. There would be lean times and it got worse before it got better. The period 1997 to 1999 was especially mean, and at times she thought it could not get worse. But Bell had learned resilience over the years and it was time to test it now. In tough times, people's spirituality often grow and Bell held to the words of Rev Elma Lumsden not to "limit the good that can flow through me; to put God at the forefront of everything I do, and know that all things will be added".

The agency grew and grew and Bell gives the praises to God. Among the big names on a very long lists of clients for whom her agency has done work at various times are: Jamaica Broilers, KFC, Churches Credit Union, Coca Cola, GraceKennedy, Jamaica Exporters Association, HEART Trust/NTA, VMBS, Jamaica Computer Society, PriceSmart, Emoquad and Caribbean Poultry Association. The core team of Carmen Patterson, media manager, Denise Wedderburn, project manager and décor specialist and Jackie Douse, administrative assistant, often call upon five other associates and a range of support services including photographers and printers. The company is now looking outside to the wider Caribbean, in tandem with OGM Integrated, headed by Oral McCook.

While Bell worked hard, she found time to play — on the theatre stage where she carved out a niche for herself with sensitive portrayal of complex characters. Theatre personalities who stand out for her include Dennis Scott, Leonie Forbes, Grace McGhie, Alwyn Bully, Earl Warner, Trevor Rhone, Basil Dawkins, Ed Wallace, Sheila Graham, Tania Nethersole and others from The Company Limited.

The stage led easily to the screen where she is known for her work in JBC's Win Some Lose Some and According to Little Poe and Mrs Garvey in which she played Amy Jacques Garvey. That was followed in 2003 with the role of Rose Madden in Lennie Little-White's steamy soap opera, Royal Palm Estate aired on CVM-TV.

At base, though, Christine Bell still thinks of herself as Zillabel's little daughter. She credits her mother with her confidence, noting that her mom had had always moved mountains to see that she achieved. "She was my inspiration for so much that I have done in my life," she says in tribute to mom. Bell admits some of her experiences were not good for her, but looked at from the bigger picture, she had learnt from them. "Now I love life, love to laugh, even at myself. I take each day as a new day, with new opportunities."

Farewell Christine.


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