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

The Media Column

Media Editor

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.

More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Financial Controller

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is a busy and varied role w...

Senior Business Development Manager

£60-70k fixed, double OTE uncapped: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Senior Bus...

Ad Operations Executive

30,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: My client is a global name within the ente...

Day In a Page

Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?