There is a mood of incredulity in the media at Gordon Ramsay’s latest PR faux pas; an open letter to his mother in law, published in the Evening Standard. “This has to be one of the most painful letters I’ve ever had to write,” writes Gordon. “Listening to Tana in floods of tears reading your letter from you asking that she stays away from her family is so awfully wrong.”
Gordon seems to be struggling with the difference between real life and reality show life – it is bizarre to see the hard man of cookery TV exposing his dirty laundry rather than his ability to spew expletives. In terms of resolving a problem – in this case, the fallout after Ramsay sacked his father in law from the role of CEO of Gordon Ramsay Holdings – his letter is akin to sending a child into the cellar with a candle to look for a gas leak. It is hard to work out what exactly he intended to achieve by writing it.
Ramsay is emotional beast, most comfortable on TV. Why, if he must ask his mother in law to not reject her daughter, has he used an open letter to do so? If Ramsay is determined to conflate real life and docu-soap opera, surely he should be doing so on TV or, better still for all concerned, in private. Ramsay’s emotion and verbal communication skills are his prime weapon. Why, then, has he muzzled himself with a letter?
The answer surely lies in the way he handles all of his public life. He has gone through PRs like sous chefs – he’s sacked or ignored them hand over fist, presumably because they’ve disagreed with him or said something he doesn’t like. But if Gordon had been prepared to listen to someone about resolving this private, family issue he would have heard an argument along these lines: an open letter is a marvellous form of protest against government or other public body decisions and is also an excellent way for someone to answer criticisms from the public. It is not, however, a good solution for someone with family issues to deal with. Just take a look at Nat Rothschild, whose open letter to the Times accusing George Osborne and Andrew Feldman, the Tories’ fundraiser, of trying to solicit an illicit donation to the Conservative party from Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, ended very badly for Rothschild, who is hardly welcome in Britain as a consequence.
He would also do well to allow himself to be reminded that there are better ways of exposing an emotional issue in the media – it has been done well many times before by many people. Gordon should look to Princess Diana’s masterful manipulation of her interview with Martin Bashir, and the way a simple line like “Well there were three people in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” can say so much more than a clumsily executed open letter. If his intent was to fix his wife’s relationship with his mother in law, surely he would have been better served going about it in a more subtle manner?
This open letter is far from subtle however. In PR terms, it makes the post-oil spill BP meltdown seem like a walk in the park, as it treads a minefield of family politics. OK, so it wouldn’t affect the whole world, but it could devastate a family; it seems likely to me that Gordon will drive a further wedge between his wife and her family, even as he was (presumably) trying to reconcile them.
I’ve been asking as many of the PR people mostly deeply schooled in the dark craft as I can find in a hurry to give me a good reason why Ramsay’s done this – and few could offer an explanation. One person did come up with a gem of a quote, however: “Gordon Ramsay is to PR what Douglas Bader is to tap dancing.” In other words, he can do many things well but if he makes a mistake he’s likely to ruin himself trying to bluster his way out. He is without the tact and delicacy that is required of celebrities in a 24/7 world desperate for stories and he does not recognise that a good publicist is perhaps his only hope of digging his way out of his current situation.
This blog originally appeared in today’s Guardian in edited form. To see it in situ, click here.