Lynne Franks: Working woman

Lynne Franks started her PR firm from her kitchen table at the age of 21, and never looked back. She tells Ciar Byrne why she still has no plans to slow down
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The Independent Online

The setting is perfect, a welcoming west London flat, fragrant with lilies, a candle burning on the kitchen table to symbolise the energy of the working day, beside a vase of her trademark gerbera daisies. The PR legend Lynne Franks is dressed in a gorgeous flowing turquoise outfit, flown in from her favourite LA designer, Dosa.

The setting is perfect, a welcoming west London flat, fragrant with lilies, a candle burning on the kitchen table to symbolise the energy of the working day, beside a vase of her trademark gerbera daisies. The PR legend Lynne Franks is dressed in a gorgeous flowing turquoise outfit, flown in from her favourite LA designer, Dosa.

The look appears carefully constructed, but Franks is not here to show off her lovely home, Hello!-style. "The number of times I have read a young woman journalist's opinions of my household furnishings, as if I care. Does it happen to a man? A man would never do an interview in the house. You would never generally describe the way a man is dressed, or that he has put on weight." What she does want to talk about is her journey from public-relations legend to passionate advocate of the professional and personal development of women.

Good PR, Franks has come to understand, is about much more than cheap stunts. "It's absolutely crucial for the PR industry to be creating value. The PR industry has got to be an example of what authentic communication is about. It's not about spending your clients' money in as many varied and gimmicky ways as you can, but trying to do something to improve peoples' lives. I'm not in favour of painting planes blue to promote a new blue-coloured soft drink, which a certain agency did years ago and spent millions. It's what I teach my women: if you are opening a cake shop, bake an enormous cake full of healthy ingredients, and take it to the children's hospital."

She is convinced she has not lost her ability to tune into the spirit of the times - the instinct for trendspotting that made her a household name in the 1980s as the PR guru who invented London Fashion Week and introduced the nation to Swatch watches and designer jeans. "I've always let my intuition, combined with my creativity, run wild. I know that I intuitively plug in at some zeitgeist level to what's going to happen next. It's what I did in PR, and that's how I was able to know what the market wanted, or how they wanted to be communicated with, and then I would promote my clients' products using that psychological direction," she explains.

"For a long time I've known that there was going to be a shift in the needs of women in society. There was going to be a time coming when women wanted to do things in a different way, both personally and professionally."

After an interlude in California, enjoying a lifestyle of rising early to watch dolphins playing near the beach, she has been back in the UK for three years, and is busier than ever. She is about to apply her philosophy of female empowerment to a new digital television channel, which she is setting up in conjunction with the multi-media publisher Big Picture and David Docherty's YooMedia, in the format of an aspirational women's magazine. Franks, who will be a non-executive director of the channel, will host her own daily chat show, offering words of wisdom - of which she is in no short supply - and interviewing experts in the fields of health, nutrition and relationships. It is her first television show, but Franks will be able to draw on her experience of having been a guest on television programmes around the world, as well as having worked on pilots of several new formats and honed her interview techniques in thousands of live sessions.

Her television idol is Oprah Winfrey. "I've wanted to have an Oprah-style show over here forever. That will not be what I'm doing, but I don't think we do it over here at all. I don't think Trisha even comes near it. Trisha is really Jerry Springer in black women's garb. It's ridiculous to say she's anything like Oprah, she's not issue-led in the slightest. It's not intelligent programming. I'll be really interested to see what Nigella Lawson's new ITV chat show is like, but she's married to Charles Saatchi, so one can assume they're not going to be too radical. Oprah will take on the entire Texas meat industry." If her show were to have a signature tune it would be The Eurythmics' "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves".

The new channel will use red-button technology to interact with viewers, throwing out questions about their lives and incorporating their responses back into its programmes. "It will be aimed at women - how to live and work to your full potential. It seems to me that red-button technology is perfect for it, learning in an entertaining way, using fun stuff that makes it really yummable." Is that a word?

The daughter of a north London Jewish butcher, Franks left school at 16 and began her professional life as a typist. After a stint at Petticoat, the first weekly girls' magazine, she founded Lynne Franks PR from her kitchen table in 1970 when she was 21, with Katherine Hamnett as her first client. The company grew to become the UK's highest profile PR agency. The mother of two young children, Franks's life had become in her own words "a roller coaster of launches, hype and hysteria".

Then in one week in 1992, she quit her job, her marriage - her husband Paul Howie went off with a family friend - and her Buddhist faith. In her autobiography, she writes: "I knew it was a matter of life and death for me to get out before I burnt on some kind of PR funeral pyre."

The next decade was spent moving to California and embarking on a journey of spiritual and sexual awakening. In 1995, the idea for Seed, Franks's manifesto for the feminine way to do business, was planted when she staged an event called What Women Want on London's South Bank, starring Sinéad O'Connor, Chrissie Hynde and Germaine Greer, to raise awareness of a UN international women's conference in Beijing. Seed is now her main concern, run out of her flat with a tiny team of three full-time and three part-time employees.

When she published The Seed Handbook in 2000, the New York department store Bloomingdale's dressed windows across Manhattan with over-sized gardening tools and blown-up quotes on sustainable commerce. It was the sort of publicity few in the PR industry could dream of, showing that nearly a decade after quitting her eponymous public-relations agency, Franks was a still a force to be reckoned with.

In 2002, Franks returned to Europe and now divides her time between her homes in London (just down the road from her son, a stand-up comedian), rural Oxfordshire and Deia, Majorca, where her daughter and baby granddaughter live. Her home on the island is on the site of the garden of an old monastery, and is bursting with orange, lemon and eucalyptus trees and cacti brought back from America by early explorers. As she lives in Majorca for two weeks out of every month, the television shows will have to be pre-recorded in blocks, but to include a live element Franks is considering having a camcorder on her when she is at her Spanish home.

In the 20 years that she ran her PR agency, Franks confesses she didn't even know how to switch a computer on, let alone how to use one, but she has now embraced new-media technology wholeheartedly. "As a communications person, my skill is understanding how to put a message out to somebody. I believe that it is possible to use my communications skills integrated with learning programmes that will have more effect than classic learning."

Together with a company called Cambridge Training and Development, part of the public sector supplier Tribal, she is developing M-learning - educating women and young people via mobile-telephone text messages using a similar technique to the quizzes in women's magazines. "We combine our thinking using graphics that are more MTV than traditional, and language and imagery that relates to what's going on in women's and young people's minds." Instead of "How compatible are you and your partner?" the M-learning questionnaires will ask, "Are you ready to start your own business?"

"They will be asked different questions, and then they put their answers through their mobile phones and they will get a response saying, 'Well, right now you probably need about six months' practical experience,' or 'Are you sure you're concentrating enough on your personal life?' "Seed is also developing E-learning programmes for women and school children aged 14-19, incorporating more traditional skills such as how to use a spreadsheet for adults, and literacy and numeracy for young people, so that they count towards recognised qualifications.

Next month, Seed is launching a brand new initiative in conjunction with Starbucks. The "Plant Your Seeds" project will be piloted in 28 branches of the coffee chain across the UK. The aim is to bring together small groups of local women who will embark on a six-week personal development programme, at the end of which they will be encouraged to create something for their community. "If you look at where the community centres are for women these days, they generally are the coffee shops," says Franks. "It could be they feel there isn't sufficient childcare in the region and want to open up a crêche, it may be they want to create a book library for their local hospital, or stop some big development being built on their local children's playground."

Franks has applied the Seed philosophy around the world, working with Bangladeshi weavers, women in South African townships and middle-class housewives in Guildford. Seed, which has just started paying for itself, has already run successful schemes with small business services in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and London, and is about to set up a centre for female entrepreneurship at Luton University, where Franks is entrepreneur-in-residence.

It is a tribute to Frank's unique talents that The Seed Handbook has evolved into an accredited learning programme backed by the DTI. Before the election, Seed enjoyed "fantastic support" from Patricia Hewitt and former women and equality minister Jacqui Smith. Franks is "absolutely appalled and horrified" that the new women's minister Meg Munn will not be paid for her role, but remains confident of Gordon Brown's determination to make the UK an enterprise culture.

She laments the fact that although a lot of warm words are being spoken, there is "no budget" for women's enterprise - an area which she believes has been neglected, but is crucial in giving women the tools to start their own businesses. "Women need to be talked to in a different way. When women went to the traditional business services to get help, the language was so male they felt they didn't relate to it."

Franks is germinating ideas at a heady pace about how to boost female entrepreneurship and, at a wider level, how to improve women's self-esteem. What is still driving her at 57? She sees herself as a tribal elder, putting down foundations for future generations. "Improving the quality of peoples' lives, that's what I'm passionate about, and if I feel I can't do that, then I'll toddle back to Majorca and retire into my old age. I question what drives me, and what it comes back to is that I'm passionate about helping people and teaching from my own mistakes. I'm in a fantastic position, as are my peers Anita Roddick and Katherine Hamnett. There are those of us who have learnt so much and clearly see our role as giving back now. We are in our wise-women stage."

In her youth, Franks was political, describing herself as an "ardent socialist" who regularly went on solidarity marches, but she admits that, cushioned by the female-dominated PR industry, she was a relative latecomer to feminism. "In the PR industry, particularly fashion PR, there are probably more women than men and the men are mostly gay, so it's a fairly feminine energy." She is critical of the way in which the early feminist movement encouraged women to compete with men on their own territory. "Whereas women speak to each other to connect, men speak to assert their space - it's a psychological fact. Traditionally, since the Sixties and Seventies, women have gone into that male space - what we call the Mrs Thatcher paradigm. That's what's got women to the point where they are getting infertile, they're drinking too much, they're having heart attacks at a younger age, breast cancer is increasing - we just stress ourselves out."

Seed is all about teaching women that they can run businesses on their own terms. The majority of the women who take part are setting up in "soft industries" such as IT, fashion, textiles, jewellery, coaching and the healing arts. "Most women in this country want to do something that fits in with their life. They can have their kids and work from home if they want to," says Franks.

Living according to her own creed, Franks achieves balance in her busy life by meditating with the Brahma Kumaris, an all-female order in Willesden, and attending regular five-rhythms dance classes in Tufnell Park. "Women over 50 have such huge self-esteem problems, because it's an ageist society. I'm still looking to see what I'm going to do when I grow up, I have reinvented myself at least three times now and will continue to do so until they take me away. I've never been healthier, never had more energy."

This summer, she is spending five days at a dance camp in Wales, travelling with a small group to the rain forest in Ecuador and teaching a workshop on the feminine way to do business at the Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland. Later in the year, she is planning a series of Seed retreats at her home in Majorca, where groups of 10 to 12 women will take part in workshops on personal development and leadership growth, incorporated with yoga, dance, creative writing, art, mountain walks and hot tubs.

I have avoided bringing it up until now, but, like Basil Fawlty who couldn't resist mentioning the war, I must ask whether her lifestyle isn't still a teeny weeny bit Absolutely Fabulous? Jennifer Saunders has always denied that her comic creation Edina Monsoon was based on Franks, and while Franks recognises some of the traits as her own, and even called her autobiography Absolutely Now!, she believes the character was a composite of different people. "It was a metaphor for the time, a parody of the Eighties and very funny. There are aspects of me in there and aspects of other people. Some of it was hysterical - the whole Buddhist thing she got from me because I was a practising Buddhist then."

But although she admits it has opened doors for her, she is tired of the Ab Fab tag now. "I've done a lot more in my life than that image of me suggests. So I don't want it on my gravestone."