Archive for January, 2013

Harry: Prince of Propaganda

Prince Harry is the ultimate recruitment poster boy for the Call of Duty generation. As a soldier Prince, he is in his element: today’s media is plastered with pictures of him in subtle battle dress, poses framed by an apache helicopter gunship, underlining his sense of purpose and presenting him in hero-like dimensions.

From Las Vegas to Camp Bastion, Harry’s headlines – both good and bad – build a modern heroic monomyth around him. He may be a professional soldier – but am I alone in preferring to read about his rock ‘n’ roll hedonism rather than this latest “I killed in Afghanistan” meme?

Hadley Freeman made an apt caricature of Harry’s media appearance in the Guardian, comparing them to “an especially sloaney university’s production of Top Gun (it’s the sunglasses)” and bringing attention to the media “omerta” that surrounds him.

Despite spending a considerable amount of money keeping Harry physically safe, the investment seems to be missing when protecting his image during his end-of-tour media commitment. Arguably, his complacent PR minders dropped their guard. However, some of these soundbites are already having negative resonance in the region he works hard to improve.

Harry uses the language of the squaddie in his interviews, comparing his experience to that of a computer game. Such comments have angered senior officials who have said it is disrespectful to those who died alongside Captain Wales.

Criticising the media was another own-goal – by now the prince should know better and should rise above the clichéd clamour. Harry is popular with the crowd, so why does he allow his cynicism towards the Third Estate create future tensions?

Harry’s comments have been a media failing for the military, diplomacy and his supporters here in the UK. As Rob Crilly pointed out in his recent Telegraph article, the fight against insurgents will be “as much about PR salvoes as it is about rockets and bullets”. Flippant comments have handed extremists a propaganda prize that will have a far more enduring sting than the inconvenience of the media junket.

Lacklustre Lance Better Peddle Fast If He Wants to Remain in the Fame Game

Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and most recently, his Sydney Olympic medal, the only wheels turning under Lance Armstrong right now are those of the press machine. After months of denying the allegations placed against him for doping and being placed under a life ban, Armstrong’s missing the taste of the fame game and has turned to the Supreme Oracle that is Oprah Winfrey to try and redeem his name in a celebrity-bares-all interview.

Obviously, Armstrong has an ambition to try and get back into the public frame. He craves the love of the herd and must be desperate to reinvent this odious legacy. When someone like Armstrong has had such an extraordinary career, they can become addicted to its limelight. He is ambitious, and is already seeding memes about taking part in a triathlon.

Armstrong is currently being held back by a number of unresolved issues. To date, he has kept his head below the parapet, and but for the perseverance of a few dogged and dedicated journalists would probably still be denying the allegations now – like many big brands, Armstrong fell victim to hubris.

Some reports suggest that the Anti-Doping Agency gave Armstrong a chance to plea bargain – a move that could have been one of the most significant moves in the war against drugs that we’ve seen – however – Armstrong seems to have maintained the arrogant belief that he could beat all these charges on his own.

As the crowd have gathered force and the Livestrong campaign has distanced itself from his brand however, Armstrong has had to accept that it’s time to change tack. And change tack he has.

The Oprah Winfrey campaign has been exceedingly well-executed. The interview has been presented as “no holds bound”, with Winfrey claiming to have been “mesmerised” by the interview and to have prepared for it “like a college exam”, bringing over 112 interview questions into the round with her.

In addition to all this pre-release press, Armstrong has the added advantage of having given the interview as a pre-record from his own home. All the props he needs to fashion a comeback are there. The world is watching intently, and the journalists who have hounded Armstrong to date will be baying for answers.

Despite having all the props and the power of Oprah behind him, Armstrong gave a lacklustre first offering. Although this is to be expected in a game of two halves, the confession offered by Armstrong was sterile – offered by a personality that didn’t look particularly full of contrition. He shed no tears and displayed no visible signs of emotion. At times he appeared arrogant and self-contained.

It is time to come clean – but will the exercise reposition him? Who knows.

The PR onslaught is the start of the rehabilitation. Like Chernobyl, he is a voyeur’s toxic attraction. His brand has the radiation equivalent to about 400 Hiroshimas and it’s lonely living in the dead zone. I predict this PR exercise will inch forward and dilute a microscopic fraction of the issues. However, if he hasn’t structured a plan of epic genius, there is more chance of the Russian nuclear sire becoming habitable in the next 5 years.

If Saint Augustine were alive he might proclaim “The media hast made him for thyself , and its heart is restless until it finds its rest in it”. Because the world expected this to be a classic PR exercise the optimised event was indeed a perfect PR pitch. It might not be the best advert for Armstrong and the sport of cycling: the real winner is Mark Fabiani.

Fabiani, lawyer-cum-public-relations-strategist has represented Armstrong since July 2010, when the FDA made its initial investigation into the first doping allegations. With his business partner Chris Lehane, Fabiani has worked the some of the stickiest reputation management issues the world has seen, earning them the title the “Masters of Disaster” for their handling of the Clintons’ reputations in the wake of the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

HMV’s Off to the Pound, But Indie Ain’t Out of the Dog House

As HMV calls in the administrators, spare a thought for the indie retailers who are now more exposed than ever to the wave of internet megafauna that have come to dominate the retail landscape.

I’ve been involved with the music retail industry for a number of years, and represented Virgin Megastores for almost a decade before it morphed into Zavvi and sank with the Woolworths ship in 2009.

We managed the launch of the last big record store, the Manchester Arndale Megastore, which set its course as the last hurrah of large scale music retail.

I was very close to this project and knew the passion of the people who worked behind the counters, who lived and breathed music retail, and could only watch on helplessly as their profession was eroded by the backwash of the rise of the likes of Amazon and iTunes.

Amazon’s ability to manage their financial affairs made them competitive in a way that the superstores could not be. By coupling their money-saving deals with time-saving convenience, the internet behemoth managed to render the high street outlets redundant.

The high street stores could offer one thing that the internet giants cannot however : the spectacle. Whether it were concerts, album signings or the launch of a video game, the high street store offered a venue for events, bringing a physical, memory-forming to the medium of entertainment retail.

High street music retailers started going wrong when they refused to accept the changing landscape of their ecosystem. It was a constant frustration of mine when working on such projects. When a business is so close to its own issues it can be hard for them to see change coming. These giants were so passionate about retail that they could not see how the internet era was about to change it. This inability didn’t mean they weren’t passionate, quite the contrary; their passion was their fundamental weakness, as they were unable to think disruptively about their brand.

The problem is the age-old issue of change. When the onslaught of modernity is laid out in front of you in plain terms, it can all seem quite sci-fi and impossible. John Baird’s television was laughed all the way out of one UK newspaper’s offices and branded lunacy not so long ago. And so it has been with music: to those who grew up with concept albums and cassettes, the world of Spotify and digital downloads was always going to be difficult to get your head around. But there will always be a place for the niche, and we are already seeing the baby boomers rallying guiltily around the boutiques.

The outpouring of nostalgia that we have seen on Twitter in the #HMVmemories hashtag has come too late however. Whether or not we have moved beyond the physical medium of the CD or vinyl is neither here nor there, but the disappearance of our high streets is very real indeed. But if this wave of nostalgia is jumped upon and turned into a PR tsunami, aided and abetted by digital, perhaps we can be given a little more time to spend with the indie record store as its pulse ebbs away.

So as Nipper’s sent packing for the pound, spare a thought for the indie retailers if you want to see the prolonged survival of niche record retailing. Though we will never see tune emporiums like HMV again, there will always be small, passionate independent retailers who keep the flame going.

The resurgent interest in vinyl and the pleasure of searching and haggling for them will be something only made possible if people forgo saving a few pounds and make at least a couple of purchases at the independents a couple of times a year.

Before the demise of the CD, lend your support to these last outposts of music passion and be ready to mop a baby boomer’s tears.

From Opulence to Obsolescence : Tarantino and the Decline of the Media Junket

Quentin Tarantino’s outburst last week should have come as no surprise to anyone involved in the juggernaut of movie promotion. If anything, it is surprising that it hadn’t come sooner. It is all too easy when watching a five minute long video clip from such an interview to forget the hours and hours – if not years and years – of tedious interviews and identikit questions that would have preceded it.

The media junket is a Prohibition era relic from the glories of the Hollywood Studio system that is arguably no longer fit for purpose: it was born into tyranny, and tyrannical it continues to be. I examined the development of the phenomenon and its decline in The Fame Formula.

The Hollywood press machine of late 1920s America would set aside vast sums of money to keep journalists happy. It sent them on cross-country, booze-fuelled journeys, managing to avoid having to bribe the police by constantly crossing state lines.

Journalists were now in the keeping of the studios, paid well and given exclusives to prevent the leaking of any damaging story that could get in the way. If the publicists of this era possessed any one great skill, it was making journalists think that they had the power that they were starting to crave, when in fact they were just desperate for the access they were being granted.

The Hollywood gravy train has become more of a cattle market in recent years however, sharing neither the chutzpah nor the grit of days gone by: it has become an industrialised process driven to the point of tedium. The modern formula is abundant in neither pleasure nor goodwill.

The disconnect of trust between the publicist and the media is at an all time low.

This is a complicated age where having total control of the image is an impossibility. Liberated by instant communications, the crowd can take its ravages wherever it may roam, and roam it does, at all hours of the day.

The desire to control the process of media relations has undone the original design of the media junket. What was once a mutually beneficial relationship has over time become mutually dangerous.

Offering limited time, space or freedom to ask questions, the modern promotional tour is to the media what battery hens are to farming: it provides bland insights, inflicts suffering and provides little satisfaction to anyone involved.

Over the course of a typical media junket – and I’ve been involved in a few – thousands of journalists are policed within an inch of their lives and are then left to compete ravenously over doldrums.

During the last few decades, a culture of self-serving amongst journalists who undermined the original model of the promotional tour has given rise to paranoia amongst publicists. This has led to over-cautiousness and protectionism and the slow rendering of the promotional tour into something anodyne and lifeless.

What the Tarantino outburst exposed was the pernicious fault line that lies between the publicist and the press. Tarantino himself summarised it quite succinctly: “This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake. I don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about.” There is no give in the relationship: the journalist wants a good story, the director wants to promote his film and neither want to please the other.

Although Krishnan Guru-Murthy may have got a rise out of Tarantino, there was no real winner in this equation: it’s going to make it more difficult for UK-based publicists to convince the big dogs over the pond to let Channel 4 News in, and Tarantino’s frustrated sales pitch – though understandable – showed a quick transformation from crocodile smile to petulant protest. The safest way to resolve this for both the US and the UK will be for the clipboard Nazis – who are terrified of incidents such as these – to blacklist Guru-Murthy.

It seems that in the new millenium, the relationship between press and publicists has come full circle. The media are now acutely aware of nature of their relationship with the celebrities they report on and the publicists who manage them, who have a measure of control unprecedented by any of their forerunners.

The complexities of these relationships has created exactly the kind of stress and strain witnessed during the Tarantino interview, and is precisely why many journalists and would-be journalists are rushing to the other side of the fence.

The reason why the Tarantino interview took off was because it was sticky and off-script. It’s not enough to just appear anymore – information about who’s doing what is ubiquitous. PR in this space needs to evolve if it is going to survive, as current methods are rendering talent tired and audiences bored. Publicists have lost the art of building symbolic products of global fabulousness. They need to rethink their methods before all is lost.

Selfridge’s Guide to Suprasexual Seduction

AS the January sales wear on urging us to grab our discounts before they end, we should spare a thought for Harry Gordon Selfridge, born 149 years ago today.

It is only fitting that the week of Selfridge’s birthday has been marked by the launch of two television series celebrating the rise and rise of his adopted brain-child – consumer culture – in the form of ITV’s Mr Selfridge and BBC’s The Paradise (an adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames).

I first came across Selfridge when researching The Fame Formula, exploring the rise of modern PR on the East Coast of industrialist America.

Although he brushed shoulders with the likes of Harry Reichenbach, Selfridge was the first person with the vision and the chutzpah to craft a culture around retail. Selfridge established shopping as an experience, an activity in itself rather than a means to an end.

Where the likes of Andrew Carnegie were able to identify problems in retail, Selfridge came up with innovative solutions, and inspired love and intrigue for his brand in a way in which no other had before.
Selfridge concocted swathes of spectacular creative stunts and used a plethora promotional mechanics to draw in the crowd. Although every generation believes itself to be the inventor of the wheel when it comes to guerrilla publicity, Selfridge did it first.

Selfridge understood the importance of engaging in modernity, embracing technological and social change, and like Baudelaire across the Channel a century before, realised the strength of the powerhouse that is the crowd. He nurtured his personal relationships with everyone from regency to rabble adorning the store front for coronations and jubilees and handing out turkeys to bus drivers at Christmas. He gained endorsement from the celebrities of the day – mixing with stars from George Formby to the Dolly Sisters – and wined and dined the press, developing a thick archive of clippings along the way.

Under Selfridge, artists were given free range and the pioneering technology of the day was given a platform – from the use of modest new printing technologies in the group’s advertising, to the display of Blériot’s Channel-crossing plane and Baird’s television. The public would flock to the store in their thousands to witness the theatrics first hand. The word-of-mouth stories that Selfridge generated spread worldwide, a near-miraculous feat in those days. More than anyone of his time, Selfridge understood the power of memes.

The spirit of the stuntsman remained with the store for some time, and I had the pleasure of working with the previous management developing three glorious campaigns for them which generated global stories. For the Body Craze season in 2003, we used the same hooks that held up Blériot’s plane to suspend S&M artist John Kamikaze from the ceiling. On another, we turned the store into a piece of artwork for Tunick’s Be Consumed, bringing in 500 volunteers to pose naked for a mass photograph.

This month, Selfridges have made another attempt at creating an aesthetic experience for the customer by launching the Silence Room, encouraging shoppers to take time out from the hustle and bustle of the experience.

Unfortunately, it seems that mass consumption has reached a point of satiation and that the kind of creative energy that gave rise to the modern retail experience has been lost. Sales and discounts are ubiquitous – not to mention the white noise of freebies that infiltrates the daily commute. Saturation of information has rendered retailers’ offerings meaningless, and just as Oxford Street was run-down in the days preceding Selfridge, so it is today.

Retail is in a state of stagnation, its sole driver anchored in ‘bargain’ prices. Although on one level global recession inspires frugality, bargain hunting in itself is not enough to sustain a consumer base.

Supermarkets have been blighted by pricing scandals and people are losing faith in the giants who don’t reach out to them. Retail is filled with bean counters who are so obsessed with numbers, and who have forgotten where the numbers come from in the first place.

The crowd is the foundation stone of retail business, and unless retailers are able to build a relationship with the public, their businesses will crumble.

Selfridge transformed retail exchange from piles of dust-covered goods hidden under countertops to an aesthetic experience to be enjoyed by everybody. Today, there are a few retailers who manage to embody this ideal, though the Apple shops spring immediately to mind as they are areas in which customers are able to interact and play with goods as well as receive advice and buy them.

There is a reason why Debenhams has been failing to attract customers despite its huge price cuts, and it is precisely due to their inability to communicate with the crowd. We can only hope that they are able to embody some of the soul of Selfridge in time for his 150th anniversary next year.

The Adventure Capitalist is Back

Next Tuesday 15th Jan, 8pm, there will be another chance to see my show Adventure Capitalism: The 20% Maverick Factor at the Bristol Old Vic. It’s a rather madcap, whirl wind journey through the wonderful mavericks I’ve worked with in my career and what I’ve learnt from them, featuring a theatre on the back of a bike, runaway taxmen turned circus performers, Hitler’s nephew, a human exhibit in London Zoo, and a man intent on eating an entire bus.

I created the show in response to the needs of a world – and economy – in dramatic flux, drawing on his personal experience of working with some of the most inspiring and innovative thinkers of the last thirty years, and outlining my rules for harnessing the power of the maverick. Adventure Capitalism is a celebration of risk-takers, outliers and artists, and why they might be more essential now than ever before.

It would be wonderful to see friends old and new there, and I’d be delighted to share thoughts over an informal drink in the bar after the show- so if you can make it, please come and say hello!

You can lay your hands on tickets here

Embracing chaos

As we settle into the New Year, commentators continue to declare the present state of flux to be the ‘new normal’. In the wake of increasing globalisation and atomisation, humanity is simultaneously more connected and more fractured than ever before – how can brands manage in this new era? The tension of our age lies between an inherent desire for stability and a necessity to adapt to the new chaotic world order.

At, we believe in being ‘20% Maverick’ – using well-honed human instinct to create spaces in which creativity can flourish. Over the last year, I have seen that more and more brands want to understand how to manage risk effectively as we adjust to living in a less stabilised world.

Clients are approaching us as they need a consultancy that offers robust advice on manageable risk. In the 24-hour world of instant communications, brands constantly face challenges and are experiencing elevated exposure to reputational risks. Often, they do not have the resources to respond quickly to these issues and need help in order to manage their reputations more diligently. We offer our clients intelligent counsel. They derive value from our knowledge base and our understanding of who influences the influencers.

The problem for businesses is this: the bigger they come, the harder they fall. If the saying is true, no wonder the age of big business is so risk averse. Whether it’s an advert for a dating website promising the perfect love match, or American politicians talking about “zero dead” wars and “collateral damage”, it seems that our world has developed a love for cotton wool in reaction to our fear of change.

Where George Orwell’s 1984 vision of Big Brother has become increasingly manifest in recent decades, it is now the soma-sedate, anti-chance society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which is starting to blossom (though it was probably first conceived in the McDonald’s hamburger).

The new world is defined by speed, co-ownership, engagement, subjective truths, polarity, and stories. In this Now! Economy nothing is certain and everything is up for grabs. To engage with this world, you need to understand stories, and no discipline does this better than PR.

Global businesses struggle to create environments that foster creativity and thought as they are stuck genuflecting to process to maintain the order and uniformity needed to drive international expansion. However, in a world where consumers have more access to choice and more capacity to communicate than ever before, such gigantism isn’t enough to earn the trust of a consumer base.

While dealing with local challenges, regional business needs to remain creatively sharp. You have to let the little voices in, as these are the ones that are best at doing the disruptive thinking; they carry the maverick gene in a world that is becoming increasingly entangled in a dangerous obsession with safety-first culture.

However, to do this well, we must embrace the chaos – as opportunity lies within an element of risk. As Alan Rappeport recently pointed out in an article on Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception, we need to “embrace a philosophy of fearlessness, where sorry is better than safe, and to break out of … the ‘industrialist’ mentality”.

A truly creative environment needs to breed challenging opinions. In order to do this, a business needs security. This security is negated when companies forget to respect the word ‘no’ and dedicate precious time and resources to chasing new business and expansion. Thinking cannot turn into true point of difference if it is not given time, space and investment to do so.

Consider taking small steps and developing a genuine working practise. Give your business time to develop and don’t create a culture based around chasing business for its own sake.

It’s important to understand your brand and your working style. One of the first things to suffer in businesses that expand too quickly and lose sight of this is investment in talent. The market is saturated and we are not training and turning people out. When you get new joiners from bigger agencies, they invariably come with bad habits as a result of this lack of investment.

I hope that I’m producing something more intelligent; I recruit from an area where bright folks who would have previously gone into journalism come here instead – I invest in agile minds that I can train and work.

The success of any PR campaign is based on simple lateral thought: picking up on the details within a brand that can be fashioned into the kind of stories that get people talking. It isn’t about logos or slogans or encouraging clients to spend money on tools such as surveys. It is about anecdotes and characters. In order to discover and create these stories however, a company must foster an atmosphere that engenders such creativity by allowing space in which it can flourish; a space where individuals feel able to offer up disruptive thought and where brands feel comfortable with taking proportionate risks.