New “Sans Frontières" PR firm crosses the line for MSF

Ben Parker

Senior Editor

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British public relations tycoon Tim (Lord) Bell is setting up a new venture with global ambitions. But its name, Sans Frontières Associates, is putting a well-known medical charity on edge. “We really hope to be able to talk him out of it,” Polly Markandya, a spokeswoman for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told IRIN.

On Sunday, details emerged of $540 million in US government work for Bell’s former firm, Bell Pottinger. The contracts covered public relations work in Iraq, some of which was designed to mislead, for example by producing fake al-Qaeda videos. The Iraq deal is only the latest addition to Bell Pottinger’s known client list, which has also included Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, countries with which MSF has significant concerns.

Markandya said: "We'd be in the same corridors – us trying to negotiate for humanitarian access and them negotiating PR contracts. It's too close for comfort. Surely, with their creative brains, they can think of another good name for their venture.”

Bell assured IRIN he was going ahead, and brushed aside suggestions that the name was misappropriating the MSF ‘brand’. "It's a name I've used for years,” he said, pointing out that the long-running French TV game show "Jeux Sans Frontières" inspired the choice of the MSF name at its founding in 1971.

If MSF were to make a "sensible enquiry", Bell said he would consider the group’s concerns. However, he insisted there was "no possibility of confusion".

Bell said he picked the name to convey a dual meaning: his venture could operate anywhere in the world and in "any discipline" in the field of communications. The name suits Bell’s aim: to give an impression of covering “the whole gamut of geopolitical communications work".

"Surely, with their creative brains, they can think of another good name for their venture”

It is not uncommon for states engaged in conflict to turn to corporate PR firms to bolster their campaigns. Saudi Arabia pays $40,000 a month to strategic communications outfit MSLGROUP/Qorvis, for example, just one of its lobbying engagements declared under US legislation.

This is Tim Bell’s second venture with the “Sans Frontières” name: a subsidiary of the main company, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières, was wound up in 2014.

Bell is not alone: in France, more than 1,300 company names include the phrase Sans Frontières, covering anything from wine to greyhounds, and there are hundreds more in Canada, Belgium and the UK. Open data service OpenCorporates lists more than 900 “WIthout Borders” company names, mainly in the United States.

Blurred lines?

Bérengère Cescau’s job, based in Paris, is to monitor and protect MSF’s legal identity and trademarks. She told IRIN by email that the MSF name and logo is registered in more than 100 countries and territories. It is also logged at the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The NGO’s brand and visual identity, Cescau argues, is part of its toolkit for working in conflict situations in the field: “MSF identification and trademarks are crucial in facilitating our operations”.

Sunday marked the anniversary of the US attack on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Since then, MSF says more than 70 facilities it manages or supports have been hit in military action. MSF International President Joanne Liu told the UN Security Council last week: “The conduct of war today knows no limits.”

Eleanor Davey, author of a history of humanitarianism and the French left, told IRIN that MSF’s image in the West is sometimes seen as an “archetypal” emergency aid organisation, with a “provocative, politically-active, engaged” reputation. She believes that MSF would be well-justified in challenging anything that created risk and might “blur perceptions”. Back in MSF’s earlier days, she recalls, a trademark dispute in 1985 between the original French MSF and its Belgian affiliate ended up in court.

MSF’s brand in the field may be more ambiguous, a 2011 study found. Researchers found: “most of the people consulted still do not make the connection between the acronym MSF, the various translations of the organisation’s name, and the name in French. In Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, some people had not realised that MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, and Attûba Bala Huddud (Arabic translation) were one and the same organisation.”

“MSF would challenge the use of ‘Hospitals Without Borders’ or ‘Care Without Borders’, but would unlikely challenge ‘Rabbits Without Borders’”

Cescau said the aid organisation only challenges infringement of its name based on key criteria: “the closer their activities are to those of MSF, the more ‘sensitive’ their activities or mission, and the more visible they are in the public eye, the more likely that MSF will challenge.”

“MSF would challenge the use of ‘Hospitals Without Borders’ or ‘Care Without Borders’, but would unlikely challenge ‘Rabbits Without Borders’,” she explained.

MSF uses persuasion as its first line of defence, Cescau said, adding that 90 percent of cases are settled out of court. She said that MSF had embarked on only two court cases in the last 10 years, without offering further detail.

(TOP PHOTO: MSF staffer shows off his tattoos, Amsterdam, 2016. Photo: IRIN)

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