The celebrities he manufactures may come and go but the silver fox remains centre stage, marvels fellow PR Mark Borkowski
Monday, 2 March 2009
Red top ringmaster: Max Clifford speaks to the media after the recent wedding of his client Jade Goody to Jack Tweed in Essex
Put any misgivings about Jade Goody’s Barnumesque three-ring circus sideshow to one side for a moment. Instead, focus on the silver fox who has been the undisputed ringmaster of recent events in her life: Max Clifford.
He may not be attired in a garish ring suit, but Clifford is clearly visible as the man, centre stage, pulling the financial strings. This is not written as a genuflection to the cult of Clifford, more as an explanation of the reality. He is doing something more than a mere job – he is reacting to the peccadilloes of the age.
Clearly it is necessary for him to either not care about Jade or to refuse to be paid to do that job; to carry it off, he has to place himself in a zone devoid of any emotion. Max remains calm, confident and never flustered, despite the slings and arrows aimed at him. His style of delivery has been criticised, but it is deliberate, matter of fact. Max is a spokesman; he is doing a job that few can do. Reminiscent of a river pilot steering his charge through dangerous waters, he vigilantly avoids all the sandbanks that might scupper the good ship of any celebrity brand he is steering.
Clifford has always functioned in the wasteland between public merit and clandestine vice, creating content for the curtain-twitching masses – none of whom will ever admit to their trivia addiction. Jade’s wedding was a high-water mark in the celebrity-obsessed world we have allowed to prosper. The enduring picture we have taken away, however, was not the pitiful Goody forcing a smile through the pain; it was Max, surrounded by a sea of microphones and flanked by camera lenses. Like an effortless highwire act juggling nine skittles, he kept the media audience in the big top entertained in a style that few understand, measuring each sound bite for maximum effect.
Waspish bourgeois media dinner parties, I am sure, have a curt point of view regarding Clifford’s modus operandi. But they fail to comprehend his skill. Yes, he has enemies, but he knows the power of collateral. For decades he has not compromised his style; he knows what works and the power of his personal business relationships. He’s happier to operate openly, on the phone and in the flesh. Max has not bowed to the digital age, and his instinct, shaped by decades of experience, is impossible to learn without years in the foxhole. Despite operating in the age of time compression, he confounds the 24-7 swirl. His tell-tale grey hair is an insignia, a livery, which indicates his membership of a unique guild that few have the skill or stamina to join.
I have often observed his methods of dealing with each media ruck and marvelled at his deft hand-offs, reminiscent of the Welsh wizard scrum-half Gareth Edwards in full flow. He is an adept distracter who knows how to deliver up a sound bite in an utterly disarming fashion while keeping the media paymaster happy. He’s more than aware that one false move, one slip, could lead to a chain reaction that could negate the final payment of the big cheque.
When the cameras stop rolling and Jade becomes a sad footnote in the history of Celebrityville, Clifford will pop up again and again; he is a brand and he occupies a unique place in the media landscape. If you’re in the public eye and you need to exploit your 15 months of fame quickly, he is accessible and has his finger on the pulse.
His type of PR has grown in the last 15 years to suit the times. But I do not see any Clifford clones or heirs to his throne coming up through the ranks. Is this because of the way PR is retrenching, underscoring the inability of the new breed to come to terms with the ever-shifting churn of media from both sides of the fence?
There are a number of PR people out there who need to take a clear look at Max Clifford. These are the people who decry his tactics and lampoon his deadpan manner with the press, the people rushing headlong into the digital media age without any grounding in the skills that have made him such a success: most notably the 360-degree vision that allows him to spot incoming missiles before they hit, be they aimed at him or his clients. Regardless of what anyone thinks of him, there is much that can be learned from him.
He is, first and foremost, a creation of the media and of his clients. His success in finding a continually crashing wave of “sordid human interest” stories for the tabloids has been unparalleled over the past 20 years, an age that has seen boundaries of morality and taste shift significantly.
Without the standards of modern media, he could never have been successful. Make no mistake: the floorboards of his office will creak under the weight of many more scandals for years yet.