PUBLIC RELATIONS: WHEN THE PR’s THE STAR - Celebrity PRs - are they a curse or a blessing? Juliette Garside investigates

Getting between the client and the spotlight is anathema to most PR practitioners. The accepted wisdom in the industry is that you can’t do a good job for your client if all the attention is focused on you. Even Matthew Freud, one of the better known industry figures, maintains that PR people should always remain in the background.

Getting between the client and the spotlight is anathema to most PR

practitioners. The accepted wisdom in the industry is that you can’t do

a good job for your client if all the attention is focused on you. Even

Matthew Freud, one of the better known industry figures, maintains that

PR people should always remain in the background.

Yet Freud is one of a growing number of PRs who manage to run successful

businesses while enjoying some sort of celebrity status. Among the older

generation are people like Tim Bell, who became famous for advising

Margaret Thatcher and now, as Lord Bell, runs Chime Communications, the

pounds 50 million advertising and PR group which also owns HHCL &


Of the younger generation, two of the ’celebrity-run’ agencies now

belong to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Freud sold his business to the ad

agency for pounds 10 million in 1994. Apart from his PR success, Freud

has always had a high profile because of his famous relatives, and

dating Elisabeth Murdoch has not exactly led to anonymity. AMV also owns

Aurelia Cecil’s luxury PR business, Aurelia PR. Cecil is genuinely

publicity shy, but she was catapulted into the headlines in 1998 when

she was romantically linked to Prince Andrew.

Step forward Sophie Wessex, wife to Prince Edward. She runs R-JH Public

Relations. The agency makes a comfortable living from small, upmarket

clients such as the jewellers, Boodle & Dunthorne, and a few bigger

names such as Rover, but it is still a small business.

Another PR ’name’ is, of course, Max Clifford, who has been around since

the 70s. Clifford runs a small outfit, but thanks to his ability to

deliver the kind of scoops that newspaper editors queue up for, he is

more famous now than ever.

To a client seeking a hefty dose of publicity for their brand or

product, hiring a famous PR person can be a tempting proposition. But

manipulating the media is a dangerous game and those who play it must

keep their eyes open.

The first thing for clients to decide is whether they want the skills of

a PR person famous for being good at their job, or whether they are

simply after celebrity endorsement.

As Bell puts it: ’The reason I have a good reputation is because I’m

good at what I do. If the celebrity is famous for something other than

being good at PR work, then there is no reason why that should be

beneficial for the client.’

Andrew Robertson, the chief executive of AMV, points out that hiring a

PR agency just so your product can be associated with the Royal family

or Matthew Freud is an expensive way of getting a celebrity


’You can hire a celebrity for a stunt for less than pounds 10,000,’

Robertson says. On the other hand, established PR agencies will charge

between pounds 100,000 and pounds 200,000 a year for their services.

For Rover, hiring R-JH backfired last year, when both the company and

the agency were accused of profiting from Wessex’s royal


Even if Rover hired her for her PR skills, her widely photographed

appearance at the Frankfurt Motorshow took the attention away from the

cars that she was supposed to be promoting and sparked a debate about

her business ethics.

Murray Harkin, a founding partner of R-JH, explains that the company has

since taken steps to ensure that Wessex stays in the background. ’We

don’t want her to be a publicity board. We interview clients as much as

they interview us, because we need to be clear about why they want to

use the agency. When we started we had quite a lot of people wanting

events. We, as an agency, have had to move away from that. Sophie

doesn’t go to events and doesn’t go anywhere there are cameras.’

It is not always possible to avoid cameras, but the agency makes all new

clients sign contracts stating that her name is not to be used in

promotional material or on invitations, that she will not appear at

events unless she agrees to do so beforehand in writing, and that the

client is not allowed to publicise the fact that it has retained R-JH’s


Dilys Maltby, a partner at the communications agency, Circus, which

co-ordinates both PR and ad campaigns, says there are advantages to be

gained by association with famous PR people. ’The very famous publicists

are like brands in their own right, with clearly defined values. Does

your brand share the same attributes? How will it benefit from

association? For some brands, the link with a celebrity PR will bring

powerful results.’

Association with Aurelia Cecil’s brand of discreet, upmarket PR has

worked well for brands such as Versace and the watchmaker, TAG Heuer.

Agencies like Freud Communications have become adept at leveraging the

youth appeal and buzz that surrounds clients such as Chris Evans and

Geri Halliwell.

For Clifford, leveraging means using his influence in the media to get

publicity for clients who otherwise wouldn’t get a mention. When he gave

the story about Jeffrey Archer’s false alibi to the News of the World,

in return for the scoop the paper ran a double-page spread on Erotica,

the British sex industry’s annual trade fair, a story on the pop band,

Steps, visiting the Royal Marsden children’s hospital, and a four-page

pull-out on Pet Club, a healthcare scheme for domestic animals. All

three are clients of Max Clifford Associates .

Clifford himself advises caution when using famous PR people. The

guaranteed media scrutiny will mean amplified success or failure - for

both brand and PR practitioner. ’You’ve got the platform, it’s what you

make of it.

You can look like a prat or it can be a bigger launching pad to bigger

things. It shows your strengths and weaknesses,’ he says.


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