So, were they or weren’t they? Or rather, was it or wasn’t it? Last
November, the nation spent three weeks gripped by the ’Ginger and Geri’
affair. The celebrity couple were pictured together in the early hours
leaving Chris Evans’ flat, and Geri Halliwell even put in an appearance
on Evans’ Virgin Radio breakfast show.
But after the initial media splash, rumours of a publicity stunt started
to overshadow coverage of the loving couple and the finger was pointed
at Matthew Freud.
His company, Freud Communications, ’couldn’t possibly comment’ on the
truth or otherwise of such rumours and it is unlikely that we will ever
know the real story.
If the whole affair was a blatant exercise to boost the asking price for
Evans’ Ginger Productions and secure Geri a number one single, it can be
judged as a success in part.
However, some have criticised the visibility of Matthew Freud in the
whole episode and others feel that, as brands, the central protagonists
The PR technique of generating press coverage by overstating the truth
to journalists is fraught with dangers, and Oliver Wheeler, director of
Freud Communications, is the first to highlight that, as a survival
strategy, it rarely works. ’You don’t get away with lying for long,’ he
says. ’Our clients, such as Pepsi, Elida Faberge and BT, spend a great
deal of time and money building their reputations with consumers and we
simply can’t risk that being damaged by telling lies.’
Instead, Wheeler identifies the PR’s skills at dealing with the media as
a true understanding of what makes a story and what does not.
’We look at what a client wants and what messages they wish to get
across and then we try to communicate those in the most persuasive
ways,’ he says. And with the many potent partnerships his agency has
promoted between Pepsi and youth pop icons - most recently Robbie
Williams - it is clear that Freud likes to be creative, rather than
manipulative, in maximising media impact.
While it comes as no surprise to discover that very few PR people ever
admit to lying to the media, there is a general feeling that there is a
thin, albeit well-guarded, line between fabricating fibs and generating
spin. And the guiding principle is to ensure that there is no risk of
anybody being conned or hurt.
’Anything a PR does should always be based on truth, but if you are
going to megaspin something, you have to make sure it is harmless fun,’
says Robert Phillips, a founding partner of Jackie Cooper PR.
As an example, he cites the airship Virgin floated across London in
September, with the legend ’BA can’t get it up’ emblazoned on it, when
the BA London Eye lay stranded across the Thames. Styled in Virgin
livery, the stunt attracted extensive media coverage in the national
There is little doubt that celebrity PR is a different animal to
consumer PR. The public’s expectation of the rich and famous in the
media is that they tend to misbehave and what is set in print should be
taken with a pinch of salt. ’There’s not really any credibility at stake
with celebrities, as we all know that they get up to pranks,’ says Tariq
Khwaja, managing director of August.One Communications. ’However, the
media should be guardians of the truth, and as a matter of principle,
lying is ethically and professionally wrong,’ he adds.
Despite their somewhat dubious public reputation, this is a view shared
by most print journalists. But in the cut-throat world of entertainment
journalism, everybody is trying to stay one step ahead in the game.
’Celebrity stories are a difficult one, because you don’t want to get
left behind - there is always a chance that if you don’t run it, then
somebody else will,’ says Jon Barnsley, editor of ’The Goss The Biz’ in
the News of of the World. But he clarifies his position by adding that
’lying is always a very unfortunate path to go down, as ultimately it’s
cheating the public’.
But publicist Kizzi Nkwocha, who recently helped Lisa Jensen grab the
headlines with her kiss-and-tells on Gazza and Ruud Gullit, thinks
’The client wants to be rich or famous, the newspaper gets a story it
knows it can sell and the public is entertained for six minutes on the
way to work. It’s a win-win-win situation,’ he says.
But being caught distorting the truth can be a disaster for the
credibility of all concerned, from the client and its brand through to
the agency and the journalist, but sometimes stories seem so bizarre
that even if they are true, reputations can be at stake.
In November, newspapers all over the world carried articles that the
latest toy craze, Alien Egg - which contains a small, foetus-like
creature - was so realistic it was causing major scares. The most
extreme case was at Buckhurst Hill in Essex, where the train station was
closed and the emergency services called in when a cleaner mistook an
abandoned toy for a human foetus.
The episode became so out of hand that Martin Grossman, managing
director of H Grossman, the Glasgow-based company which makes the toy,
was forced to make a public statement refuting any similarity between
his ’neon-green and metallic grey aliens with massive ears’ and human
babies. But the amount of column inches this incident received left some
wondering whether it was a deliberate attempt to push Alien Egg sales in
the run-up to Christmas.
It is this emphasis on gaining volume, rather than quality, of coverage
from PR that leaves a bad taste with many. John Rivett, director of Hill
& Knowlton’s youth and consumer group, says that sensationalising facts
to gain a media splash is not responsible brand management.
’Spin is not something you can predict, and misleading the public can be
potentially exploitative and painful,’ he says. ’But we do have to be
proactive with the press and spot opportunities for brands and create
good media angles,’ he adds.
With the amount of research and forward planning that goes into a PR
strategy, it is hard to justify any exercise that strays off the
campaign line, but that doesn’t rule out innovative and topical PR
Last July, Birds Eye Wall’s cashed in on the heat of summer by creating
a media debate about ice-cream vans ditching their traditional jingles
in favour of more up-to-date tunes.
The story kicked off as an exclusive in The Sun and coverage spread to
the likes of The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. The Big Breakfast
then got in on the act, putting Greensleeves in a head-to-head
competition with dance tracks in a street in Gloucester. And on her
breakfast show, Radio One DJ Zoe Ball sat in an ice-cream van,
broadcasting Wonderwall outside Liam Gallagher’s house in London.
’We sat down and worked out how we could make Walls ice-cream
interesting for consumers and get some fun, punchy coverage in a short
time-span,’ says Catherine Thorpe, senior associate at
Burson-Marsteller, who masterminded the stunt.
And when news coverage is built from finding a witty angle that is
genuinely going to benefit the product, while not insulting the public’s
intelligence, it is hard to argue that anyone loses out.
When Sony launched its computer game, Crash Bandicoot, a few years ago,
the MacLaurin Group created a campaign so tongue in cheek, that nobody
was hood-winked in the process.
’People didn’t know what a bandicoot was, so we set up the Bandicoot
Protection Society and released a story that a bandicoot was on the run
in Scotland - which was patently ridiculous as the animal’s natural
habitat is the Australian desert,’ says managing director Brian
Within hours, listeners up and down the country were phoning their local
radio stations with spoof sightings of the marsupial and some farmers
even claimed they had shot it. ’Sony came out of the whole thing really
well, and everybody knew that it was just a bit of fun,’ adds
However, these sort of stunts stir up a hornet’s nest of professional
issues for more traditional PR practitioners, and MacLaurin admits that
his methodology has moved on in recent years: ’We create a set of
circumstances to get the interest of journalists, but in association
with strategy, demographics, timing and evaluation. Otherwise creative
news management can be very damaging.’
PR IS ALL ABOUT SPIN DOCTORING
Ghislain Pascal, managing director, Panic
PR is all about spin. Most stories that we read in the papers, see on
TV, or hear on the radio have been fed by some PR. The challenge we as
PRs have is in making the media believe the stories are true.
The masters of spin are Max Clifford and Matthew Freud. Their clients
pay them thousands of pounds to promote them, so they must be doing
something right. Matthew Freud’s most recent success was in linking Geri
Halliwell with Chris Evans, both of whom are his clients.
Personally, I don’t think the publicity has done their credibility any
good, as we are all sick of them. But do they care?
Geri wanted publicity to help sell her single Lift Me Up, and to promote
her recent autobiography If Only. The single went straight to number
one, and her book has topped the bestsellers’ list, selling more than
35,000 copies so far, no mean feat for a hardback. Chris wanted
publicity, as he is trying to sell his company, Ginger Productions -
there are several offers on the table. So the media coverage has worked
for both of them.
For every major story such as the Chris and Geri affair, there are a
million and one other stories published every day. We recently
piggy-backed Cliff Richard’s chart success by leaking stories to the
papers that Cliff was thinking of buying Liberty Radio - one of our
clients - as it had playlisted his record. The result was a story in the
News of the World and The Express, even through there was no truth in
the story whatsoever.
The funniest story I’ve ever spun was for April Fool’s years ago, when I
sent out a release for human rights charity, Survival, stating that the
US government was considering giving back New York to the Native
The story was picked up worldwide and we even had a phonecall from an
Aboriginal organisation in Australia wanting more information. The best
PR is the best spin that makes great reading.
SPINNING KNOCKS PR’S CREDIBILITY
Ken Deeks, UK managing director, Kaizo
It drives me mad that publicity scams are even described by the media as
PR campaigns. The 90s have seen a seismic shift in attitudes toward
After years of being stuck with the ’puff and fluff’ Ab Fab stereotype,
PR is finally starting to win credibility in boardrooms the world
Much of the respect being attributed to PR is thanks to the work being
done by organisations such as the PRCA and the IPR to raise professional
accountability by introducing consultancy management standards.
But much of it is also down to the sheer vision, energy and focus that
has been shown by PR practitioners, who are determined to win the trust
of their clients, prove the worth of their activities, and deliver
To see companies which really should know better condoning the use of
cheap, tacky publicity stunts in order to secure column inches is really
To then see such frivolous efforts actually reported as PR practice
leaves a really sour taste in my mouth.
PR is a powerful business tool for managing corporate reputation and
building strong customer relationships. By providing sustained brand
visibility and a consistent platform for dialogue, it enables even the
most complex organisation to be properly identified, positioned and
But corporate reputation can’t be grown overnight, and that’s the
critical point being missed by organisations and agencies which get
sucked into spinning lightweight stories as a way of achieving a quick
Goodwill, collaboration and trust are the watchwords of any
communications consultancy worth its salt, and principles such as
honesty, integrity and openness are the key building blocks of the
PR has to take itself more seriously if it wants to retain its status as
a profession and continue to be recognised as a company’s most effective
tool for raising awareness, reducing risk and managing crisis.
In July, PR Week reported that Sir Anthony Greener, Diageo chairman and
a member of the PR Week Best Practice Steering Group, believed the Best
Practice Campaign should work toward ’managing the expectations and
communicating the benefits of PR more clearly to clients’.
In the light of so many pseudo-PR stories appearing in the papers in
recent months, perhaps the task of explaining what’s PR and what’s not
should begin a little closer to home.
Releasing inaccurate, flimsy information to the press may seem like a
harmless bit of fun, but the knock-on effect is hugely damaging to the
industry’s credibility. The PR industry shoots itself in the foot every
time it allows itself to be associated with tabloid gossip. It’s time it