Ian Burrell: The public face of PR has been disgraced. Now the industry is trying to save it own reputation

The Media Column

Using the fire-fighting talents that are an integral part of its skillset, the public relations industry moved last week to distance itself from Max Clifford, its most famous proponent.

Clifford’s eight-year jail sentence for eight indecent assaults is being characterised by many in the PR world as a personal issue which has minimal bearing on the trade in which he worked.

I have been given access to some comments made by leading PRs to their industry body the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in the wake of the conviction. “The reputation of the PR industry should not be at stake. The reputation of the man, however, is ruined forever,” said Georgie Cameron, founder of Admiral PR. To Shelley Facius, founder of Juice PR, “Max” was a “publicist and negotiator” and “what he does/did does not reflect what many in our industry would call the practice of public relations”.

The highly-regarded Rachel Bell, founder of Shine Communications, reckoned: “For the vast majority, I think Clifford was viewed as being a high profile talent publicist, without being deeply associated with the wider communications industry. He was also viewed as a keen self-publicist with his own agenda. As a consequence, the impact to the industry I think is negligible.”

To me this is myopic, not to say rather alarming for a sector that is supposedly highly-tuned to the business of protecting reputation. To say that Clifford’s spectacular demise has not tarnished the image of PR is nonsense.

If you’d walked down any High Street before this scandal broke and asked shoppers to identify a PR person, the silver-haired and silver-tongued Clifford would have been the most popular nomination (and quite possibly the only one). In that sense he was the public face of British PR.

A glance back at the press cuttings from before his arrest shows him variously described as a “PR mastermind”, a “PR guru”, a “PR mogul”, and a “PR supremo”.

Year after year, the annual power list compiled by the industry’s trade magazine PR Week ranked Clifford in the top 10 of big hitters. As recently as 2010, Clifford was placed third, behind only Matthew Freud and Roland Rudd of City PR firm Finsbury. He was declared more powerful than the hugely influential Alan Parker, founder of Brunswick, and Lord (Tim) Bell, who will always be known as “Margaret Thatcher’s favourite PR”.

All this talk of Max being a different kind of animal doesn’t wash. It’s the industry “spinning” on behalf of itself.

I understand why. Since 1970, when Clifford emerged from the shadow of Syd Gillingham (his mentor in the press office at EMI) and set up his agency Max Clifford Associates, the communications sector has changed out of all recognition.

As companies have come to understand the power of the modern media and the value of corporate reputation, cash  has poured into the industry which has grown and diversified into a multiplicity of specialisms. Even so, throughout  those 44 years Max Clifford bestrode  the sector. The growth of celebrity culture in the past two decades increased  his relevance and enhanced his profile.

While many leading PRs preferred to operate in the shadows, anxious to avoid the industry golden rule of “never becoming the story”, he was always available to the rest of the media. Clifford was meticulous in returning calls and could speak lucidly on the wider subject of reputation management as well as his core topic of finding fame. For this, deadline-pressured journalists loved him.

Some of the respondents to the PRCA poll were brave enough to criticise the PR world for continually allowing Clifford to grab the microphone. “The industry has let itself down by not regulating enough and allowing people to so easily establish themselves as high-profile ‘PR’ experts without having enough of a quality control or code of ethics in place.”

Many PRs looked in wonder at Clifford’s ability to garner column inches and air time, which – despite the desire of many “communications professionals” to see themselves as long-term “strategists” – remains a fundamental skill.

“If we’re being honest,” Mark Stringer, the founder of Pretty Green, commendably admitted, “most of us would have said that Max Clifford was one of the best there was at generating and securing stories for his clients. We might not have agreed with the way he went about it but we were often in awe of what he delivered for his clients. Now understandably everyone is distancing themselves from him, but let’s not now try and also rewrite history because it makes us feel so uncomfortable.”

The fact is that, although many high-calibre graduates are being drawn to a PR sector that has rapidly grown in stature, there will inevitably be a significant number of young people in the business who will have been inspired by the figure of Max Clifford and the promise of working in an industry that offered access to the stars.

According to a recent study by another PR body – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – the industry’s treatment of its interns leaves a lot to be desired and is discouraging social and ethnic diversity.

The realisation that one of the sector’s leading role models was using the profession as a cover to dupe and abuse young women should be a wake-up call.

I’m not suggesting PR needs a Leveson-style inquiry but it should be wary of the “one rogue reporter” argument initially used by News International. Diana Soltmann, chief executive of Flagship Consulting, told the PRCA that Clifford was the sort of “renegade” you find in all walks of life. “Cyril Smith was a politician, the Reverend Flowers was a man of the Church, Harold Shipman was a doctor. No one is immune,” she said.

This strikes me as worryingly complacent.

I tend to agree with Steve Dunne, executive chairman of Brighter Group. “I suspect,” he said, “that the Max Clifford story has set back the reputation of PR by a decade or more, leaving the public and the media with a very negative view of the profession.”

Public Relations needs a brand refresh.

The BBC should support ‘Panorama’

There is concern within the world of investigative journalism for the pressure being heaped on Tom Giles, the editor of Panorama.

Last week, the BBC Trust published a review of the BBC’s news and current affairs output which seemed to go out of its way to criticise the investigative strand for falling ratings and supposed lack of distinctiveness.

The irony that the review was released on the same day as the resignation of disgraced Conservative MP Patrick Mercer following an expose by Panorama (and The Daily Telegraph) did not go unnoticed.

Mr Giles is not an industry friend of mine. The last time we spoke was when he called me to complain because I’d reported that a Panorama researcher had leaked an entire dossier  to the subject of a recent investigation, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. I thought he sounded under pressure.

Despite what the BBC Trust says, Panorama’s subject matter has been remarkable and varied – from its excellent undercover work in care homes to probing the finances of Formula 1.

What it’s also done during Giles’s tenure is tackle subjects which BBC bosses find uncomfortable: the organisation’s coverage of the Jimmy Savile scandal, the hosting by Azerbaijan of the Eurovision Song Contest, corruption at Fifa as England was trying to stage the World Cup, and the destination of money raised by Comic Relief.

This is the sort of boldness we need from a Panorama editor. The corporation’s other flagship brand Newsnight – also criticised in last week’s review, despite its recent improvement – has just lost Jeremy Paxman, another great BBC asset who has not been afraid to criticise his employer. The BBC Trust should be trying to strengthen these two important shows – not to weaken them further.

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