Spinmeisters of the Universe Colin Byrne is dazzled by the cynical skills used to promote politicians and Hollywood stars alike
Colin Byrne The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008
Alpha Dogs: How Spin Became a Global Business by James Harding
The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry by Mark Borkowski
In June 1997, some of us PR consultants who had volunteered to work on New Labour’s election campaign staggered out of the victory party at the South Bank centre and blinked in Tony Blair’s new dawn. We sniffed the excitement of change. We also smelt a business opportunity: to take the fascination with the biggest brand turnaround in recent history – unelectable old Labour into shiny New Labour – and to peddle it to the corporate sector, using the campaign and media management techniques pioneered by Clinton and taken up by Blair. We thought we had hit on something new.
Of course, the Americans had beaten us to it two decades earlier. How they “took political spin and turned it into a global business” is the subject of one of two books looking at the rise of the public relations business.
James Harding, now editor of the Times and formerly the FT’s Washington correspondent, focuses on the Sawyer Miller Group, the pioneering US political consultancy that saw in television the foundation of the new “electronic democracy” and sold its campaign techniques first to politicians, and then to business leaders.
David Sawyer and Scott Miller built a PR powerhouse that took politics out of smoke-filled rooms and into people’s living rooms the world over. They helped democratic revolutions in Chile and the Philippines and brought political campaign strategies to brands such as Apple and Coca-Cola, producing many of today’s most successful PR leaders in both the political and commercial sectors.
While Harding’s basic premise is that PR = spin = bad, he has produced a meticulously researched micro-history of a small US company that made a big difference in international politics in the 1980s, as well as to modern brand communications. He is happy to note how Sawyer Miller used its campaign skills to aid democratic candidates around the world, but tut-tuts at how it took these skills to corporate America.
He tells a lot of good stories, and tells them well. The book opens with a timely one, chronicling the spectacular turnaround in the fortunes of a monumentally unpopular and out-of-touch mayor of Boston, who was re-elected against all the odds using the tactics of the Sawyer Miller guys.
If Harding sees political spin as one foundation stone of modern PR, the leading publicist Mark Borkowski sees Hollywood as the other. Borkowski cut his teeth in theatre publicity, and was one of the first PRs in the UK to realise that businesses hankered after the pixie dust they saw in the celebrity PR industry. In The Fame Formula, he pursues his passion for the history and power of the movie publicist.
While Harding can occasionally come across as moralising, right down to dwelling on who at Sawyer Miller was sleeping with whom and how much money they were out to make, Borkowski is unashamedly the kid at the sweet-shop window in his enthusiasm for the golden age of the Hollywood celebrity publicity business, despite the seediness of the star system.
The Fame Formula establishes Borkowski as the unofficial curator of the House of Spin, or at least its glittering celebrity wing. Forget the silly maths equation of the title that he slips in at the end of the book. This is a behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest forces shaping popular culture over the past century: from the Hollywood highs of silent movie vamps, through Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, to the tabloid lows of Jade Goody and Heather Mills, via Tom Cruise and a galaxy of stars and their publicists. It doesn’t need a gimmick to sell it.
In truth, the star makers and stuntsters whose exploits Borkowski lovingly details were far more cynical and manipulative than the campaign consultants James Harding frets about in Alpha Dogs, but they are also great fun. Whether it is Betty Grable insuring her legs for a million dollars, or the publicist Jim Moran sitting on an ostrich egg for 20 days and then adopting the chick to promote a new movie, Borkowski relates classic publicity stunts that would have some of today’s PR gurus weeping into their Groucho Club martinis.
He starts off looking at the careers of publicists such as Harry Reichenbach (who first realised the commercial potential of Mickey Mouse) and Maynard Nottage, men who came out of circuses and cowboy roadshows to build the early stars of the silent movies. He looks at how the press agents became “suppress agents”, managing the squeaky-clean reputations of their stars by keeping the drugs, sex scandals and even murders out of the news. Take Harry Brand, keen to deflect attention from his client Marilyn Monroe’s infamous nude photoshoot, who put out the story that she would look good in a potato sack – and created the photo opportunity to prove it.
He shows us how stunts like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV searches for his new Nancy or Maria can be traced back to the mega-hype for Gone with the Wind and the trawl for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. The Fame Formula is a terrific, witty romp through the – often dirty – undies of the Hollywood fame factory and draws some interesting conclusions about modern-day celebrity culture.
Meanwhile, the “electronic revolution” noted in Harding’s brief history has become the internet revolution, and once again business leaders (as well as Brown and Cameron) are looking to the web warriors of the Obama and McCain campaigns for the next generation of campaign techniques to adapt to corporate communications.
· Colin Byrne is chief executive of Weber Shandwick UK and Ireland
Oh here is the ” you shouldn’t be writing about this” review in the Times…