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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Management Accountant

£30-35k + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Management Accoun...

UI Designer / UX Designer

£40 - 60k + Amazing Benefits: Guru Careers: A UI Designer / UX Designer is nee...

SEO Manager / SEO Expert / Head of Search

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: An SEO Manager / SEO Expert is needed to join an inno...

Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

£30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?