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Farewell to longtime airline PR man

David Bell, the long-time public relations frontman for Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, has died in Sydney aged 79.

A career in television for Bell, fresh out of high school in Melbourne, had not gone much past scene-shifting on the Humphrey B Bear set at NWS9 Adelaide when he was sounded out for a promotions role with Tasman Empire Airways.

It was the mid-1960s and the airline was then in the throes of transitioning to become Air New Zealand.

The challenge of the proferred role far outweighed possible useful experience as a news presenter and fill-in cameraman.

And Bell’s subsequent move to Auckland would be a foot on the first rung of a remarkable corporate media relations career.

It would peak with the Camberwell High School boy’s formal renunciation of schooling and eventual induction within the hallowed halls of the diversified global Swire Group in Hong Kong and their airline, Cathay Pacific.

His first career choice for the uncharted waters of television, had incurred the displeasure of his father who, as Bell recalled later, ” did not talk to me for a long time after”.

However, David John Thomas Bell, who died in Sydney on April 2, clearly had made all the right choices including the subsequent move from television to Air New Zealand and their decision to relocate him to promote their new presence in Hong Kong.

It was while he was in that role, and faced with unwanted reassignment back in Auckland, he was a pinch-hit PR person for the Hong Kong Tourist Association and was already discussing a return to Australia when he was sounded out by the mighty, global Swire organisation to head up their new media relations section, breaking exciting new ground.

For Swire, an integral part of the very fabric of the old Colony, just acknowledging there was a role for media liaison, was a major step. But it was not a simple case of “here’s a new job, fill it”.

Bell was flown to London to front the Swire board and convince them he was their man and could be entrusted with innermost details of Swire activity. He also confided later, in a published farewell to Hong Kong, that interview had been one of the scariest moments in his life and career..

His valuable experience assisting at the birth of Air New Zealand equipped him to head the expanding Cathay Pacific’s PR department, a job which gave Bell instant significant status in the complex social structure of Hong Kong, particularly its expatriate community.

Operating almost 25 years in the rarifield Swire atmosphere also helped Bell hone quite extraordinary skills of tact and diplomacy, exuding a trustworthiness which would, later, both in Hong Kong and back in Australia, be among his many attributes.

An avalanche of condolence messages from around the world, read at his Macquarie memorial service singled out these attributes for special mention.

Journalists in travel and aviation in Australia came to know Bell when he reprised his role as Cathay Pacific’s PR head in Sydney from 2000 -2011.

Another of his legacies is the revamped Crows Nest Mainstreet wining and dining hub, in the planning and promotion of which Bell had been a prime mover.

Bell, 79, died in Greenwich hospital after a short illness, is survived by wife Siew,- who had been an Air New Zealand colleague, and sons Nick and Richard, and daughter Caroline, mother of grandson Jack, now 16 months old.

Originally published as Farewell to longtime airline PR man

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