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
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
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.