Did you catch the interview on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live this morning with former footballer’s girlfriend, Nicola Smith (available to listen again here)? Curiously, the role seemed to run in the family as she mentioned her even more celebrated sister Mandy, who notoriously dated Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones when still a very young teenager.
Nicola Smith spoke openly about the emptiness of a life that appears to have so much, and of her current work as corporate fundraiser for the Five Stars Scanner appeal. She described this as public relations work, and it’s a version of public relations that appeals to many first year students.
It’s public relations as personal networking; public relations as party and event organising; public relations that uses celebrity connections.
Last week in the lecture theatre I tried to distinguish two things that are often confused: the use of PR in support of major events, and the use of events to support PR campaigns. PR is not the same thing as event management (several universities follow Leeds Metropolitan in teaching both as entirely separate disciplines, in this case delivered in different faculties), though there is some overlap in the skills needed. I view event management as a left-side-of-brain activity involving painstaking attention to detail and public relations as a right-sided activity that involves creative ‘ideas management’.
As student Megan Parks writes, the PR event organiser will find she’s Not Quite JLo.
The connection between awareness raising and fundraising is a question for another lecture.
Here are three observations on contemporary public relations from a media perspective (most positive first):
- The Power and the Story: Michael Wolff's analysis in Vanity Fair of President Obama's powerful media operation. (Note the difference in style between a magazine and a blog: there's a 76-word sentence containing no fewer than nine commas here. But don't let that put you off reading this elegant article.)
- Spinning the Web: PR in Silicon Valley: New York Times business section (and note Richard Edelman's scathing reaction to this exercise in self-promotion).
- PR Girls Who Don't Know Where Darfur Is Bask in Bruno Press Blitz: New York Times fashion section (via PROpenMic). Nuff said, probably, though there's already a tribute blog – Hot Twin PR.
What are we to make of this? In brief, it shows the problem of simplifying an activity that spans political and technology communications and also includes celebrity publicity. But I suspect it also shows something of an east coast, west coast divide in the US. Here in the UK, Max Clifford, Matthew Freud, Alan Parker and Roland Rudd all work in London (see post below) – a political, financial and media hub.
Here's what we can learn for sure from the past week in the life of Britain's Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle.
We learn of the enduring power of storytelling – this is 'rags to riches' while 'David and Goliath' is another perennial favourite. There are surprisingly few great stories.
Great stories get people talking; great stories have the power to move. Great stories remind us of our humanity.
What we don't exactly know is what this tells us about the balance of power between broadcast and social media, between manufactured and organic success. Sure, people will comment on the ability of a YouTube video
to make her a global viral phenomenon – but don't forget that this would not have been possible without prime time broadcast television.
Sure, she's a homespun amateur talent. But the ITV programme is presided over by Simon Cowell, that master creator or manufactured success. Will she now have a makeover?
The Guardian newspaper has a detailed analysis
of the fame factory at work, including comments from Max Clifford. (That's how The Guardian justifies most of its celebrity and entertainment coverage – by taking an analytical view of the phenomenon.)
See also NBC: An Unlikely Star is Born
. Don't be too quick to dismiss the so-called mainstream media and their ability to influence public opinion.
John Harris has written an extended feature on Matthew Freud’s connections to the worlds of politics, media and celebrity. It reads rather like an appendix to Miller and Dinan’s A Century of Spin: the author can’t quite pin his subject down, but clearly senses there’s something wrong in someone having this much influence.
Having a famous great-grandfather, being the son of well-known MP and broadcaster, having Rupert Murdoch as father-in-law must confer advantages. I suspect it encouraged him to take risks, because you can see Freud’s progress as an entrepreneurial success story – how someone who did not go to university built a business and became connected to the most powerful people in the country. He’s earned the money he’s spending on private jets and lavish parties, though John Harris sees him as the Great Gatsby of our age.
Mark Borkowski (2008) The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, Sidgwick & Jackson
Mark Borkowski writes that ‘in the media world, very few genuflect to the past – the zeitgeist is all.’ Yet he’s rather different (‘I fell into publicity because I failed to get into university to read history’ he says) and has written this history of the Hollywood publicity machine in follow-up to his previous book, Improperganda: The Art of the Publicity Stunt.
It’s full of stories: Barnum’s elephants, a Tarzan publicity stunt involving a tame lion, and the hilarious tale of how a publicist protected the reputation of actress Tara Tiplady and her co-star after an incident involving oral sex and a hot frying pan required medical intervention. Tiplady was starring as the Virgin Mary in a film about the birth of Christ at the time, so publicity would have been a bad thing.
But what does it tell us? ‘The great skill of the publicist in this era [ie 1930s Hollywood] was making journalists think they had the measure of power they craved when in fact they were simply desperate for access to be granted.’ Not perhaps so different then from the world of sport, entertainment, politics and even big business today.
Mark Borkowski has a new book coming out called The Fame Formula and he’s written an article on this theme in today’s G2 section of the Guardian newspaper.
I take the science with a pinch of salt (it’s a classic publicity stunt), but Borkowski is worth listening to on fame and celebrity publicity as he updates Andy Warhol’s concept of 15 minutes of fame:
Madonna is an excellent example of a celebrity working the fame formula to perfection. From her early days as a sharp-witted 80s party girl, she has moved onwards and upwards in her quest to stay famous, creating controversy through videos of her kissing a black Jesus, her Sex book and her flirtation with lesbianism, changing style for every album, acting parts in movies, adopting children, writing books for children and becoming a member of the English landed gentry by dint of marriage and money. Even her sporadic film roles, lambasted though many of them have been, are part of her success. Each new innovation has caused her fame to spike and kept her in the media spotlight.
It’s not about a brave young man; nor is it about the restraint shown by the British media for ten weeks. Nor is it about the reappearance of the Drudge Report. It’s about Max Clifford, who entered the fray to say this was all a publicity stunt. Of course!
Peter Wilby writing in Media Guardian follows the Max Clifford line. ‘He [Harry] is a pawn in a PR game.’
Let’s see who’s involved in the ‘PR game’. Certainly the army, and who can blame them, given the problems, unpopularity and bad press they’ve encountered. Certainly the Royal Family, given the problems, unpopularity etc. Certainly the media (in particular the press), given the problems etc. Certainly the Drudge Report which shot to fame when citizen journalist Matt Drudge bypassed the caution of the US media and broke the Monica Lewinsky story. That was ten years ago, so the site was in need of some new notoriety on the global stage.
Some journalists will continue to lament the growing influence of PR (one of the themes of the Nick Davies book); but most of us can accept that everyone’s ‘on the game’. This is also a challenge to university courses teaching the subject, which may struggle to distinguish professional and ethical PR from Max Clifford-style publicity stunts or do-it-yourself ‘citizen PR’.