I thought I had taken on the dream PR job. But I didn’t realise that meeting Michael Jackson was forbidden.
From the Independent 13 March 2001
A few weeks ago, I was employed by Michael Jackson. It soon became clear that what he wanted was a PR flunkey to hand out edicts and information to the press, according to the Jackson and Heal the Kids agenda.
What I knew he needed for his visit to Oxford was something far more complex. He needed someone to negotiate, to reconcile and to manage a compromise that would satisfy the media, tell his story and enhance his image, without causing excessive intrusion.
The advice wasn’t welcome. His representatives didn’t agree. The clear response was: “Don’t be negative. We don’t care about the UK media; the US is what matters.” Well, not to me. I resigned the job, and he resigned the opportunity to secure highly select and influential features in major UK titles and on TV.
Now, the circus has left town. Michael has been and gone, and all that remains is the dying crackle of static, and sodden newsprint in a recycling-bin. But the sideshow goes on. The next advance bills are being fly-posted, and the whole round of speculation, gossip and tittle-tattle has been renewed.
What I tried to explain to Michael’s representatives was that the UK media are a very odd beast indeed. First principles are that if you’re a star, you make a deal with the devil. The devil comes armed with a notebook, a long lens, a microphone and a scavenger’s taste for trash. He’s a beguiling friend who says he can fuel your fame. You ask him in, and he’s as good as his word.
Then, he keeps coming round, uninvited, unannounced, whenever he feels like it. Eventually, you stick a note on the door, warning him to clear off and mind his own business. You hide away in Never-Neverland, so he tells everybody that you’re an insufferable, antisocial, unpleasant little shit with dodgy habits. Then you’re his possession.
He doesn’t get to see you face to face; he just peers over the gate. He paints a picture based on half-truths, suppositions, fragments, stray glimpses and rumours. It makes it all the more intriguing to the devil’s acolytes (that’s you and me). The unconscious manufacturing of a myth, and myths are meat and drink not just to the media, but to societies and culture as a whole. Stars may shrug it off. Most will buckle, one way or another, and when they buckle, the myth grows ever more interesting and newsworthy. Michael has buckled more than most – so he’s arguably the most interesting celebrity on earth.
What I’m aware of is that in America the business reacts to the demonic incursions of the media by trying to exert rigid control. Up to a point, it works. Stars are locked in a velvet cell. Visiting-time is limited. Questions are vetted. The reports that emerge are the sanitised stories the business dictates. Journalists know that if they don’t toe the line, they will be outcasts without access, stranded on a gulag of faxes, phones and mobiles, with nothing to say.
British journalists are never caught short with nothing to say. They can create seemingly hot, exclusive double-page spreads out of thin air. With so many curious past cuttings, and with such a paucity of available fact, Michael Jackson need say nothing to make a major media splash. Just because he’s there, he sets up a field day for fantasists and whole battalions of judgemental columnists.
I watched with interest as the story of Michael Jackson’s Oxford Union speech unfolded last week. It’s territory I’d visited before – working with Uri Geller, managing an Oxford Union speech for Diego Maradona, and handling Rabbi Boteach. Celebrities’ connection with reality can come into question. Their world needs to be respected: it’s not an easy existence
MJ’s message was for the world – in truth that means America. Were the UK media going to be the megaphone to call across the ocean? US stars think globally but they don’t act locally, which is a big mistake. If the UK is the 51st state of the Union, then – at least in media terms – it has chosen to take an independent line. This is a small island with a multiplicity of media outlets, most of which display a severe attitude problem. They won’t do as they’re told. Shut them out, and they’ll say what they like, and it probably won’t be pleasant.
I took the line with Michael that the media could well be the devil, but at heart, the friendship the media are capable of displaying on day one of a celebrity relationship is one that can be re-forged, as long as everyone knows the limits. So if you’re famous, consider access, but get your story straight. In MJ’s case that is more difficult than in most.
Michael and Heal the Kids needed a bodyguard. When the rules of engagement are likely to involve flak, as MJ astutely recognised they would in his case, it’s just no good employing a publicist as an armed security guard to defend the treasures in the vault of your celebrity. Stars need to trust PRs. They need to forge a relationship with them based on the certainty that however exposed they may think they are, a publicist who manages access in a relaxed and informed fashion is a publicist who wins the confidence and support of the press. Perhaps that was beyond Heal the Kids and Michael: they were not used, perhaps, to hearing the reality. Not making it easy for me to reach MJ was a real obstacle that was never thought to be a problem; they thought I would just accept it.
Appropriately enough, with regard to the Oxford Union appearance, perhaps this is all academic. If he’d wanted to communicate a clear message, he should have walked the path we advised. If he just wanted publicity, he was going to get it anyway, and he’s probably well past caring. Peter Mandelson may be interested in what the papers have to say about Peter Mandelson, but, unconventional though he is, Michael Jackson is not so weird as to bother poring over the papers.