Love it or loathe it, discussion of the role of celebrity in society can sometimes become as all pervading as the celebrities the discussion seeks to dissect. I may place a peg on my nose when discussing the publicity strategies of certain celebrities, or use them as a cheap gag to gain the audience’s attention in a lecture, but my own obsession with ‘anti-celebrities’ such as Fred Dinenage reveals I am just as much a victim of interest in the cult of celebrity as those I may treat with disdain.
Mark Borkowski and the ubiquitous Max Clifford are set to launch a blistering attack on the short-term thinking of modern fame makers in a debate on celebrity PR at the London College of Communication tomorrow evening (5th May).
Mark has briefed me on his opening pitch, and it is strong stuff, comparing the caustic nature of modern celebrity to crack cocaine, and attacking the way that a conveyor belt of X Factor celebrity are not given the kind of support that the fame industry used to give them. He tells me that Max signs up to this opening gambit, which, as LBC’s Steve Allen said yesterday on his show, may raise a few eyebrows given his friendship and representation over the years of Simon Cowell. Mark argues that Max is one of the few publicists who continues to look out for the welfare of his charges, as his handling of Jade Goody’s final weeks bear witness.
Of course, this kind of issue is nothing new. My obsession is radio, and one of the most famous victims of the way the industry uses and abuses talents is the 60’s presenter who cut quite a dash, (cue jingle) Simon Dee.
As you will see from the clip in which Mark appears as a ‘talking head’, Simon is a slightly different case, as, rather than being a talent needing nurture, he was more a genius let down by the system (and there are still a number of those today).
At the heart of Max and Mark’s case (regardless of what you think of them), is an issue with the kind of support talent or personalities get from their agents and publicists. It was an issue that regularly came to the fore when I was running Radio 1’s PR at the turn of the decade. I looked after the profile of celebrities that included Chris Moyles, Sara Cox, Jo Whiley, Scott Mills, Tim Westwood, Mark Goodier and Nicky Campbell, and privileged enough to do work for others including Zoe Ball, John Peel, Trevor Nelson and Annie Nightingale. Outside of Radio 1, I also had the privilege of working with then Kiss 100 Breakfast show host Bam Bam, and I could tell you that I had to manage a photo-shoot with Mark Ronson when he was DJ-ing for Kiss, but that would be showing off.
To be a BBC press officer then (and possibly still now) was then a privileged role. The public service responsibilities ensured I was given a remit/freedom to act/think on behalf of my ‘charges’, to ensure I was looking after their best long term interests and reputation, as well as the credentials of the station. I was not just promoting a radio station, or ensuring tune-in to their shows. The responsibility was something ingrained in me by mentors, handed down to me as a kind of PR baton. It was aided by a side of my personality instilled in me by my early years upbringing ‘below stairs’ in an Officers’ Mess, the son of a (then) meticulous, others might say toadying Steward. Attention to detail, forward thinking – polishing the shoes and laying out the clothes on the bed – you get the idea.
But back to Radio 1. I would be horrified on a regular basis by decisions made by a small number of agents on behalf of their clients, either about perfectly legitimate media bids I had put in for clearance (turned down because there was no fee attached) or ridiculous outside projects they had agreed to (because there was a fee attached). Whether there was a matter of slow responses, or lack of insight or foresight about the long term interests of their client, there were some howlers and frustration (although with me, there always seems to be frustration, so that’s another story). For the most part, I have no doubt that the issue was financial, but what was so sad was that just a few more minutes thought would have revealed that the impact financially in the long-run could have even more of an impact, rather than settling for the smaller immediate %age of a rather questionable short-term deal.
It has probably changed a great deal in the few years since I have moved on. And it’s no use pretending that press officers and publicists don’t have their own issues too.
But the issue that Max Clifford and Mark Borkowski draw attention to is a very real one. There is a lot more that agents and publicists can do to support and help develop talent than send them to the jungle, as Susan Boyle is already reported to be jetting. We are all (agents, PRs AND programmers) doing far from enough to provide space, support and development to raw talent – new and established – to do something with the creative genius they have been bestowed. Public Relations as a discipline should be deployed as part of a celebrity’s creative armoury, part of their overall strategy, rather than just a flimsy promotional device to flog another fitness DVD, or after-thought to save their bacon in their latest crisis. And more often than not, it is about standing up to the talent, telling them the difficult things they do not want to hear, for the good of their career that go un-said, for fear of jeopardising that %age fee. Is there another model? Is everything really that bad?
To lighten the load, if you want to get a good feel for what the night’s proceedings have in store in the LCC debate, the lyrics to this Just Jack track, ‘Starz In Their Eyes’ capture the tone perfectly. I chose this version because although this video is poor quality, it tries to add something to the commentary related to the X Factor. I should be posting video clips of the LCC debate (part of our monthly ‘PRfutures’ guest lecture series) to the blog shortly after the debate. Stay tuned. Whatever your view (and I am sure there are polarised ones), both Mark and Max are in a good position to analyse the toxicity of modern fame. The paperback edition of Mark’s book ‘The Fame Formula’ was published recently.
And while we are recommending reading, if you haven’t read this book before, I can thoroughly recommend Simon Garfield’s account of Radio 1 as it went ‘through the change’ while I was privileged enough to be a member of the team. In ‘The Nation’s Favourite: The True Adventures of Radio 1’, you hear direct from the DJs and management, as Garfield spent a year, fly-on-the-wall style documenting the changes. It’s gripping stuff. My boss at the time before I took over the press office, Polly Ravenscroft sent me off to ‘chaperone’ Simon on Radio 1’s OB from Glastonbury. My mention in the book is of an exchange with Polly, informing her about an on-air exchange with Liam and Noel Gallagher featuring the ‘c’ word and a whole lot more besides that ended up splashing the front pages of the following day’s tabloids. My mother was so proud; not! Such a way with words.
* Not a single celebrity secret was compromised in the construction of this blog entry. Not even the one involving the kumquat!