Never call it a crisis. In the closely guarded circle of reputation management, the word “challenge” is preferable to “crisis”.
“PR has never been more important,” says publicist Alan Edwards, founder of The Outside Organisation. The boundaries between public and private are increasingly blurred and it’s hard to hide mistakes. There’s no shortage of fallen public figures trying to defend themselves at the moment: Harvey Weinstein, Ronaldo, Kevin Spacey. Managing the actions of these celebrities is indeed a challenge — so much so that Philip Green’s PR of many years, Neil Bennett of Maitland PR, has not renewed his contract.
“Unless the PR response [to a scandal] is quick and effective it’s sometimes hard to get the genie back into the proverbial bottle,” says Edwards, who has been in the business for more than 40 years and worked with The Rolling Stones, the Beckhams and David Bowie. “The impact of a bad story on a brand or person can be fast and devastating, so a good PR response can save a business or career.”
The life of the celebrity PR is currently being dramatised in Flack, on the W channel. Anna Paquin plays Robyn, a high-functioning mess. At work, she coolly sorts out the unpleasant situations that her clients get themselves into. In her own life, she is addicted to cocaine and lies to her sister and boyfriend. The PRs suggest lesbian sex tapes to young pop star clients who want to seem more grown up, and when everything fails they just snort more cocaine. It’s a barbed office to be in — funny if you are in on the joke, mean if not, and fast-paced.
“Flack captures the high-octane excitement of PR at the sharp end,” says Edwards. “Sometimes it really is a bit like that. I remember walking into TV shows, briefing the client en route, while they’re still getting dressed, sometimes with the show’s theme tune playing in the background and the interviewer looking like they were going to lose it.
“It requires you to think on your feet. I had to write a speech with Alastair Campbell in a phone box for the Brits when Tony Blair was presenting an award to David Bowie. We wrote it on the back of a cigarette packet, one line each.”
But what about when it doesn’t go to plan? Like the best superheroes, top disaster-management PRs try to stay under the radar. Most sign non-disclosure agreements and are found by word of mouth. They are highly paid, around £10,000 a month, and there is an understanding that they will quietly sort out any problem.
Even though they often deal with shady situations, they have to be honest. This is highly prized. John Harrington, deputy editor of PR Week, says: “They have to be respected by journalists. And being able to react quickly is crucial.”
These PRs are selective about clients. “Everybody runs a mile from people like Harvey Weinstein,” says a celebrity agent who wants to remain anonymous. “People who have done bad things aren’t popular with PRs. The Weinsteins and the Spaceys can think they can do whatever they like and just get their PR to sort it. Others blame PRs for everything. I’ve heard that Cheryl Cole was with one agency, they cocked up the campaign, she left and went to Simon Jones and now that agency has to turn her career around. PRs are not miracle workers. R Kelly is the perfect example of someone who is never going to get their career back on track.”
Harrington agrees: “PR is no way to patch up moral failings. If you have done bad things you need to own up and be punished in whatever way is appropriate. The PR can’t do anything about that, they shouldn’t be seen as a way to hide an ugly truth. It needs to be backed up by a commitment to do the right thing and genuine remorse, otherwise you are putting a sticking plaster over it.”
The general rule is to confess wrongdoing, says Edwards. “Avoid prevarication, apologise if appropriate and obviously explain and contextualise as much as possible to soften the damage. Then the next step needs to follow quickly. Getting on the front foot with some positive news to move the story on as fast as possible.” Lawyers are more crucial than Flack makes out. Edwards says: “When clients are in distress they normally call in a lawyer and manager as well as the PR.”
Often, damage limitation is all the client can hope for. When the Presidents Club was revealed to be exploiting women, its PRs were honest. One told me, “this is the worst case I’ve ever worked on, I’m advising everyone to keep quiet and wait for another story to come along.”
The best crisis management Harrington has seen recently was by KFC when it ran out of chicken. “They struck the right tone, a mix of humour, self-depreciation and regular updates. They made their response feel human and kept people on side.”
Managing the client is a big part of the job, says Edwards. “It’s important to try and contextualise what you’re telling the client so they can get some sort of perspective; to offer positivity and hope of resolving the situation but without over-promising. Emphasise that this is ‘our’ problem and we will get through this.”
When things go wrong, Edwards tries to take a minute before issuing advice. “I find a quiet spot away from everyone for a minute or two or walk outside and think, even if it’s working out a plan/scribbling something down on the back of a napkin. If you give a knee-jerk reaction it might be what they want to hear short-term, but long-term could be disastrous.”
Edwards acknowledges the temptation “to just go along with the client’s emotional response” but says being able to assess situations impartially is crucial.
PRs do often know more about clients than their own families and it’s easy for boundaries to blur. “A PR who gets that close to the clients can easily lose perspective,” says Edwards.
When he started out, says Edwards, artists would muck in.
“I was working for the doyen of entertainment PR at the time, Keith Altham. He represented most of the acts from Woodstock, people like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, the Moody Blues. Our office was one room in Victoria with three telephones, my teenage self and Keith. Once Keith got ill and I was alone answering phones. Marc Bolan called, I told him about Keith and he said he’d come help out. I didn’t think too much more about it but 20 minutes later there was a knock on the door and in walked Marc, silk clothes flowing, platform shoes and looking a million dollars. He sat down and answered phones with me all afternoon.” Keith returned the next day, “turned out the grass he’d been smoking was too strong.”
While these PRs work globally, America is a “completely different beast”, says the anonymous PR. “American celebrities want ultimate protection, somebody like Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s PR, who is a complete Rottweiler.”
But no matter what your style, Edwards has found that the basic principles remain the same. “It’s about getting the narrative right. PRs are storytellers and that has not changed.”