Public relations: This time it's personal
It's not just celebrities who require advice on how to present the best image. Dominic Prince on the rise of PR in business, law and (near) royalty
Thursday 10 May 2012
Pippa Middleton is the latest in a line of people indulging in the ultimate luxury, the personal public relations person. It's a boom business – and for gaffe-prone celebrities one can see why. After all, most will have accountants to look after their taxation matters, bankers to tend to their fiscal affairs and lawyers to sort out whatever legal wrangles come their way.
But what of reputation, public perception and persona? With little experience of dealing with the press, disasters are apt to happen – and often do. Witness the spate of super injunctions doled out to, among others, Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Clarkson and how they both backfired in spectacular fashion. From a public relations point of view they were a disaster.
But it's now not limited to celebrities; this week we learnt that Lord Leveson has the attention of a personal PR. Clearly it's about more than the oft-quoted "damage limitation". James Henderson from Pelham Bell Pottinger – from which company the consultant David Wynne-Morgan has been hired by Middleton – has personal clients Theo Fennell, jeweller to the A-list, and Viscount Weymouth. He says that personal PR has become a growth area for two reasons. "Firstly, in the corporate world there is increasing public interest in corporate governance and remuneration which has removed a lot of the anonymity that directors used to enjoy."
The second is that because of growing investor activism, boards of directors are increasingly aware that the company's advisers are answerable to shareholders. "Where a chief executive is in disagreement with some investors, or where personal matters become a distraction from company business, it can be inappropriate for, say, the chairman or CEO to be represented by the existing PR adviser," says Henderson.
But what does Henderson actually do for Viscount Weymouth? "For Ceawlin Weymouth I am building a corporate story around his transformation of the Longleat Estate since inheriting it. What his plans are and how they'll be put into action. He also has other serious business interests," says Henderson. So the job for Henderson is to project Weymouth as an astute player – and he has done this by getting coverage in The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the Evening Standard. The object is to get Weymouth taken seriously as a businessman. "More City and business pages and less diary items," he says. The services of someone like Henderson do not come cheap. He charges from £6,000 to £15,000 by way of a monthly retainer.
Dubai-based dealmaker Amanda Staveley was credited by the press with having arranged the Qatari multibillion capital injection into Barclays Bank at the height of the 2008 banking crisis. She also brokered the 2008 £210m takeover of Manchester City football club, for which she was reputedly paid £10m. But behind the headlines stood a seasoned City PR operative called David Bick. His firm, Square 1 Consulting, is retained by Staveley.
Bick processes every request for interviews personally; "Most interviews I turn down because, despite her prominence, Amanda has no wish to become a media figure," he says. Staveley has worked with Bick for a decade and clearly values his advice. "I don't need a big PR firm, particularly as we don't want to be in the public eye," she says.
"There is a lot of focus on woman in the City, but I don't want to be seen as a campaigner for women's rights, that is not me," she adds. And as to the fees that Bick charges? "Amanda pays for results, so I do receive significant fees when transactions complete and a running month-to-month retainer," says Bick.
Damien McCrystal operates at the racier end of the market. As a former City editor of the Sun he is used to the rough and tumble at the sharp end of the media marketplace. McCrystal has previously worked for the restaurateur, Marco Pierre White and City "superwoman", Nicola Horlick.
Following a stint on The Daily Telegraph business desk, McCrystal cut his teeth in the PR trade in 1997 as adviser to Andrew Regan, during his disastrous contested bid for the Co-op. He works alone and is quite often prepared to get aggressive with his clients' enemies and opponents, something that would be unlikely to happen under the auspices of a large organisation. "I do tend to work at the more exotic end, because that is where the personal crises tend to happen. If I have a client I will investigate their opponents and look for weak points in their defence.
"Some years ago I had a client who was owed £1.5m from an AIM-listed company which was refusing to pay him. He had a lot of dirt on them which I passed on to a broadsheet. It made for a great read and I guess the company was worried about a follow-up, because they paid up immediately," he says.
One can't imagine anything so heavy-handed in the business of smoothing Pippa Middleton's relationship with the press, or in advising Lord Leveson. For two of our great inquisitors into press ethics, Leveson and lead counsel Robert Jay, the advice they get from a personal PR has been to ensure that the public see them handle the press in the best way (for instance, Jay was told not to lean forward when asking questions). When serious people start consulting personal PRs, you know it's a business that is here to stay.
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