Magazine article The Spectator

The Publicist Problem

Magazine article The Spectator

The Publicist Problem

Article excerpt

Why do the famous pay people to make them even more famous?

Whatever calamitous infelicities David Beckham did or did not email to his publicist, few will doubt that he has lived to rue the day. Nevertheless, I'll bet teeth that he is pointing his ruing in the wrong direction: that he is tormented by the moment he pressed 'send' -- but not similarly kicking himself for hiring a publicist in the first place. It will be left to thee and me to wonder what was the point. When you are already richer than God, you are one of the sporting legends of your generation and your face would be recognised by a yeti in the wastes of Siberia -- why might you ever want to fork out gazillions to a man who describes himself as 'managing David Beckham's global communications strategy', which translates as 'making him even more famous'?

The stricken footballer is not alone. Practitioners of these dark arts are now a sine qua non for everyone from the wannabe to the more established twinkles in the galaxy. One editor of a magazine that specialises in entertainment and celebrities estimates that 85 per cent of those who grace his pages dance to the tune of their personal publicist. He is incredulous when I promise him that it was not always so; that it is, in fact, a very recent phenomenon.

Twenty years ago, at the behest of the Sunday Times, I went to interview Carrie Fisher, armed only with her home address and telephone number, in case I got lost. I found her in her garden, pushing her daughter Billie on a swing. I then joined them for Billie's bedtime songs before Fisher and I sat on the floor by a big log fire, drank far too much wine and talked until midnight. Just before I toppled into a taxi, we agreed which bits I would not print. The next day I wrote a warm piece about a remarkable woman, without mentioning the... well, never you mind... and it was job done, exactly as it was after several days spent with Arianna Stassinopoulos and Sonny Bono.

Only two decades on, could it happen now? 'Inconceivable,' says my younger editor friend. Today, the personal publicist will allow a maximum of 45 minutes and choose the anonymous venue -- probably a hotel room. He or she might stipulate limits on the questions, demand to approve the finished piece and will probably sit in on the interview to ward off conversational intimacy. Should it be a TV talk show, the grip will be even tighter.

Make no mistake: the personal publicist has nothing in common with the traditional PR machine that has always played midwife to the launch of a book, play, film or sporting event. The machine concentrates on the project before the person; an interview with, say, the leading actor is only part and parcel of the wider aim to nudge interest and consequently ticket sales. Few, indeed, hold the personal publicist in greater contempt than the more experienced public relations expert. 'We don't share the same DNA,' sniffs one such. The personal publicist gives small damn for the bigger picture. Unlike an agent or manager, who works for a percentage of earnings and thus is invested in the long-term success of the collective project, the personal publicist is paid a fee to concentrate on the individual, even at a cost to the rest.

The first personal publicist in Britain was probably the now-disgraced Max Clifford, whose discovery and exploitation of the niche was perniciously brilliant. …

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