Power PR: Matthew Freud and the Murdoch Empire

Many media commentators are speculating on who exactly has the most to lose from the precipitous events caused by the News of the World hacking scandal. The obvious casualties are the hundred journalists who have been pushed out into the cold. Murdoch has withdrawn from BSkyB bid. Other titles are in a definitive tailspin. Andy Coulson could be looking at some time in the slammer.

Arguably, the incandescent political damage done by the phone hacking has savaged the Prime Minister’s brand. Any scandal that needs to propel a failing opposition leader into a favourable light requires emergency PR council. Alas, Ed Milliband isn’t free to dance on the Prime Minister’s misfortune because he too is aided by an ex News International journalist.

Matthew Freud is perhaps one player who has even more to lose. I’ve been operating a PR company breathing the same oxygen as Matthew, but he’s been on an impressive mission and built a far bigger empire. Make no mistake, the omnipresent Freud, eminence grise, is held on high by the phantom in the wings. The PR industry gives credence to the fact that he is the country’s most powerful PR broker. His influence, aided by his marriage to the Murdoch family and his close friendship with Rebekah Brooks, simply cannot be ignored. He sits in the middle of the powerful circle to the advantage of many of his clients.

Why not? Isn’t that what every powerful PR broker has done since the birth of public relations? After all, Freud is related to Edward Bernays, the grandfather of spin. Certainly legend has it that if Matthew was involved on any company account, things happened. Embellishing the corporate Freudian myth became a brilliant pitching device and a pivotal instrument for his empire. Yet now, many are questioning whether this leverage is under threat.

It looks like his desire to be influential in political power has been thwarted, and of course so has Murdoch’s. Suddenly it is possible to ask whether The Sun ever did win an election. Has the spell been broken?

It seems, now, that the newspapers’ influence might be waning generally and that News Corporation’s political clout is actually pretty limited – as the sacrifices made in the name of BSkyB would prove. What is a 168 year old newspaper worth in the face of television’s reach? Not a lot, apparently.

As the old Fleet Street vet Roy Greenslade commented in his blog: “The press is not, and probably never has been, as powerful an agent as politicians seem to believe. On the other hand, it is certainly not as neutral and lacking in influence as proprietors tend to say.”

Politicians are vain and take themselves seriously, they like reading about themselves. The papers are merely convenient scapegoats for the moment that parties or policies fail.

Of course recent events will usher in a change in the way the relationship between Murdoch and the political class works. His perceived brand power will now be playing against him; folk are uncomfortable about a figure that can be portrayed as an over-mighty influence on political affairs. It is apparent that, for the time being, he will actually be unable to wield the power it is claimed he is able to exercise. For this reason, Miliband has ostentatiously burned his bridges with the Murdoch press. This strategy holds the advantage of leaving him looking like a clean man fighting a great power, but without significant electoral risk.

So will Freud’s prestige and standing be overshadowed by the current calamities? Will his legendary parties still arouse and beguile? The Freudian metonymy is disfigured; indisputably, the political class is under pressure to distance itself from the pandemonium and any related individuals. The political class is pragmatic, hardnosed and commonsensical and will steer clear of negative ink and public disdain.

The Freudian cult faces a huge challenge and Freud’s business dexterity will be something to watch. Matthew is a fearless, creative and audacious networker with considerable clout, but his capacity to manoeuvre and redirect his powers will be paramount if his brand is to survive the events of the last 10 days. I guess he is ahead of the curve and plans to reshape his brand persona in the coming months. Whatever; the new world order of PR is upon us.

UPDATE

With the resignation this morning of Rebekah Brooks, it looks like Murdoch is beginning to kick emotional ties into touch. What bearing this will have on Matthew Freud remains to be seen.