By Michael Greer
Why is it that experienced public relations professionals in the UK dislike, or fail to understand, the role of publicists? Did the unethical behaviour of Max Clifford tar every publicist with the same brush, or is it because publicists are perceived to be ‘one trick ponies’ specialising only in media relations? The only certainty is that our profession is made of two tribes with one looking down on the other.
- Why it is offensive for the PR profession to think all publicists are like Max Clifford.
- Publicists are more than 'one trick ponies' specialising in media relations.
- What publicists actually do, a little bit of publicity history and some suggestions for legendary publicists to follow.
They are all like Max Clifford.
Max Clifford described himself as a PR man, but many thought he was a publicist. He was reviled by some, tolerated by many and liked by a few. He cemented his role in public relations with a column in PR Week and was the go-to-guy for any scandal dodging celebrity or TV programme looking for a “PR expert”.
Max Clifford was very good at publicising himself and clients, but his conduct had a corrosive effect: the reputation of publicists within the PR profession suffered, and the public’s perception of the PR industry became more negative. When an audience of PR pros voted in favour of his motion that fabricating news on behalf of a client was okay, the ethical image of publicists and the PR profession took another hit.
Veteran publicist and strategist Mark Borkowski accurately described Max Clifford as “An anomaly. Not a PR operator - more a dark alchemist - part agent, part deal-broker, a one-man news agency with a twist. He was invented to exploit the voracious tabloid news agenda.”
PRCA Director General Francis Ingham said of Max Clifford: "He did our industry a disservice by pretending to be part of it. I note that most media outlets are describing him today as having been a publicist. That is - finally - an accurate description of his career."
To class Max Clifford as a publicist is debatable, but to pigeon-hole all publicists with Max Clifford is both ignorant and insulting. Publicists working for great brands like the BBC, Walt Disney, Universal Films, Channel 4, Random House and many award-winning PR agencies deserve better from many in the PR industry.
One trick ponies.
Whilst some PR people believe publicists are cut from the same cloth as Max Clifford, others believe publicists specialise in media relations only, and are therefore less qualified with a narrower skill set. In reality, a publicist works in-house or for an agency within the film, broadcast, music, entertainment, publishing and fashion sectors and employs the full range of PR skills.
Before a story is even pitched to the media, a PR plan is drawn up that will include objectives agreed with the client, financial and budgetary considerations, strategy, goals and real-time measurement, research and data analysis to understand and identify audiences, creative activity, distribution channels, timing and resources needed.
Additionally, the strategy might also include integrating digital PR, advertising, experiential events, sponsorship and other elements. Spokespeople or celebrities might need to receive media training and their agents included for the exploitation of cross-promotion opportunities. If the objectives are controversial or have the potential to generate negative publicity, crisis management and reputation protection will be prepared.
The great showman PT Barnum would measure the success of his event publicity by counting bums on seats, cash in the till and press clippings. If Barnum was a publicist today, his post event review might also include analysis of all offline and online media coverage, sentiment monitoring, market research and measurement of digital media activity.
What does a good publicist look like?
If Edward Bernays was “the father of public relations” then Jim Moran, PT Barnum and Harry Reichenbach are the legendary three wise men for publicists.
James Sterling Moran was a publicist and a press agent for film studios, manufacturers, retailers and Washington politicians from the 1930s to the 1980s. In 1989, Time ranked him as "the supreme master of that most singular marketing device - the publicity stunt." His many PR stunts included selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo and walking a bull through a New York City china shop.
Phineas Taylor Barnum was an American showman and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum was also an author, publisher, philanthropist, and for some time an anti-slavery politician.
Harry Reichenbach was a US press agent and publicist who dreamed up sensational publicity stunts to promote films. He worked both for actors, as an agent, and for the studios as a promoter. He promoted the ‘Return of Tarzan’ by sneaking a lion into a hotel and tipped off the management by ordering 15 pounds of raw beef through room service.
Three new stars to follow
Barbara Charone was an early champion of Madonna and cited Seal's elevation to stardom as a satisfying result in her PR career. The Guardian included her on its list of "The 20 most powerful celebrity makers" and dubbed her "Britain's most powerful music PR" after revitalising the careers of Madonna and Neil Diamond, and establishing those of Duffy and Mark Ronson.
Alan Edwards is the founder of The Outside Organisation. Over the last 40 years, he has managed the publicity for some of the biggest names in the music business, such as: The Rolling Stones, The Spice Girls, Amy Winehouse, Prince, Michael Jackson, Blondie and The Who. Alan has been named the number 1 entertainment PR in the UK by PR Week magazine for three consecutive years (2015, 2016 and 2017). The one constant in his life as a publicist was nurturing David Bowie’s reputation from the very beginning.
Dotti Irving is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Four Colman Getty, established in 1987 after a decade spent at Penguin Books. With an extensive address book that spans arts, culture, business and the media, Dotti also handles high-level sponsorship and partnership deals on behalf of Colman Getty's clients. She has been instrumental in profile development of clients including the Booker Prize, Harry Potter author JK Rowling and domestic goddess Nigella Lawson.
Publicists are by nature storytellers. They like to start with a blank sheet, create opportunities that intrigue journalists and capture their attention with something irresistible that makes news. A picture is worth a thousand words and a stack of press clippings ‘on message’ is a job well done. Talent is to be nurtured, and it is a fine art to develop it into celebrity.
If you still think publicists are just like Max Clifford, or lesser than PR professionals, just remember it was entertainment publicists that turned Star Wars into a business delivering box office receipts of $7.52 billion.
Think about what could be achieved if the two tribes – PR professionals and publicists – had a greater understanding of each other. I wonder how many publicists are members of the CIPR and PRCA? There is more that unites us than divides us.
Once a retail ops troubleshooter and Manager of Primark’s flagship store. Former PR wizard for JK Rowling. Very experienced at managing A-List celebrities, consumer events and PR campaigns. Now searching for the next big PR challenge, when I am not organising the #EalingTweetup - probably London’s longest running Twitter gathering.