Faced with the biggest-ever threat to her media profile as Britain’s “domestic goddess”, Nigella Lawson has deployed a fire-fighting strategy the likes of which has rarely been seen in the world of public relations.
Comforting recipes are not the conventional weaponry of a celebrity PR war, but the TV cook has reacted to the traducing of her public reputation on the newspaper front pages by tweeting about eggnog, pumpkin and chicken nuggets.
“Holiday Hotcake” was one offering to her half a million followers this week, just as Isleworth Crown Court was hearing claims by her ex-husband Charles Saatchi that she was a “habitual criminal” who used so much cocaine that he called her “Higella”.
The recipe for the “warming, welcoming pud” was dedicated to those showing support for “#teamnigella”. That was a reference to the crucial ingredient in her otherwise low-profile PR strategy.Team Nigella has been a nimble deployment of Ms Lawson’s large network of famous friends and army of viewers and readers.
“I know and adore Nigella and just can’t bear the vilification she’s getting,” commented Twitter heavyweight Stephen Fry, dutifully using the hashtag.
Jemima Khan, also using the hashtag, dryly noted that “if there was ever a harmful charlie addiction, it was only to Saatchi himself”.
Comfort food and kind words on social media can only do so much, however. In the press, Ms Lawson has been torn to pieces. “Nigella: ‘The Habitual Criminal’,” reported the front page of the Daily Mail, while The Sun splashed with “Higella”, quoting the term coined by Mr Saatchi, one of Britain’s most successful advertising copywriters. The art collector likes to take control of his own PR and enjoys strong connections in the press.
Danny Rogers, editor of Campaign magazine and former editor of PR Week, noted the ferocity of the press coverage. “The reaction suggests she doesn’t have many friends in the tabloids.
“They seemed to be quick to gun for her and she has been absolutely destroyed over what is just an allegation.
“She will be hoping for a public backlash against Saatchi’s apparent aggression,” he said.
The story has emphasised the impact of a paparazzi photograph – and also exposed its limitations.
Back in June, when the Sunday People pictured Ms Lawson being held by the throat by Mr Saatchi outside Scott’s restaurant in London, the story was of the TV chef as a victim of domestic violence.
This week, the press has focused on another photograph from the same set of 355 pictures captured by the picture agency JG Photos. It shows the art collector holding his wife’s nose.
The photographer, known as Jean-Paul, said that he felt the pictures had new resonance following the drug allegations.
“When we originally looked at those pictures they showed domestic abuse but it’s hard to ascertain what was said at that table,” he said.
Ms Lawson is being advised by her sister Horatia and her long-standing PR manager Mark Hutchinson, who has represented her since 1998.
Mr Hutchinson is credited with having played a major role in developing the cook’s career as a writer and broadcaster – with her television company making profits of £2.4m in the year to August 2012.
But his company Mark Hutchinson Management, which lists JK Rowling and author Andrea Levy as its other key clients, is primarily a literary PR firm, rather than a specialist in crisis communications.
When the throttling picture was published, Hutchinson is said to have asked Mr Saatchi to apologise and admit he was “ashamed”.
Instead, Saatchi complained in a statement given to the Mail on Sunday that his wife had been “advised to make no public comment” defending his reputation.
And in court, Saatchi stated that – despite the claims in his widely-reported private email to Nigella – he had “never seen any evidence” of his former wife taking drugs.
The public spat may have boosted newspaper circulations, but it has helped neither of the protagonists.
Alan Edwards, the founder of the Outside Organisation, which has represented both David Bowie and the Beckhams, said: “This week’s revelations might engender some sympathy for Saatchi but there are no winners in this battle, especially Nigella, who is more dependent on the support of the public.”