The recent story in the papers about Geoff Baker, the former gatekeeper for Sir Paul McCartney who now dresses as a dustman to give tours of his home-town, should act as a salutary lesson for all entertainment publicists.
I first met Geoff at the height of his journalistic powers, as a showbiz reporter for the Star. This was well before the modern British publicity industry started to emulate Hollywood in the late 20th century, taking control of every aspect of their client and shutting out the media if they wouldn’t play ball; before the idea that stars were brands really set in.
Geoff’s big legacy as a journalist is the Princess Margaret awards, now called the Shaftas (shame the title is so crude). In the days when the geriatric Royal PR spin machine shut up shop at 5pm and the old duffers wouldn’t dignify anything with an answer out of working hours, Geoff announced – at five past five – that Princess Margaret was to make a guest appearance on Crossroads. The story was beautifully absurd. Absurd enough to have everyone gleefully report it long before the Palace could step in and correct the story, allowing it to become one of those ‘true at the time’ stories. Out of this came the Princess Margaret awards, celebrating the liberties taken by showbiz journalists.
But things change, and liberties became less and less desirable to celebrities. And then McCartney found himself in need of a gatekeeper. Geoff, a Beatles fanatic, was the obvious choice; a man who new the game and who could be trusted. A number of kind interviews suggested he would make a happy in-house PR. Geoff of course jumped at the chance and got the job – but he forgot three all-important rules: 1) Never get too close to your heroes; 2) Remember that it’s just a job and 3) Situations always change.
The great publicist Theo Cowan once told me, in a down at heel coffee bar in Soho: “Never forget that PR is just a job, Mark. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a job.” Geoff, after many good years with the former Beatle, found himself suddenly out in the cold when Heather Mills arrived on the scene. Now he is in a very different place. We should never forget that a job is a job in these straitened times, but it must be strange, if not necessarily satisfactory, to experience such a seismic shift in situation.
Simply, one should never get too close to a client or allow oneself to be sucked in by the lifestyle of your client – they will always move on and there are always too many other people around with their fingers in the same pie. A new marriage or love affair is one of the classic catalysts for change, especially if the new partner is a celebrity too, with their own entourage, as is a big break in America.
Any publicists who believe that the client will always remain faithful are, at best, kidding themselves or at worst seriously deluded. And there are a lot of dilettantes masquerading as publicists nowadays, hooked on the lifestyle and scared of the work who’ll do things for a pittance because they’re daft enough to believe canny producers, managers and clients who tell them they’ll keep then it for the long haul. It’s a hard, hard struggle to plot the course of a client’s career between these rocky outcrops and not everyone has the gift of building relationships in the eternal love triangle of client, media and public.
Publicity is not a glamorous life – it’s hard and thankless. The lesson fresh-faced wannabe publicists need to learn from Geoff’s example is don’t hang on to your ego, be prepared to be dumped and always keep an eye out for the next client opportunity, as you can be sure your clients will be doing the same thing. If you can keep coming up with fresh big ideas every fifteen months you may keep a client for a few more years than others, but nothing is guaranteed.
A publicist can get away with being a yes or no man in a media landscape where the media has been weakened by top publicists in complete control of their clients and lifestyle junkies at the other end of the power spectrum. Whether we like it or not, we need the media to be a little stronger. At the moment, there is little middle ground in the publicity industry, and it needs middle ground. The digital explosion makes it even more complex.
I saw the light and diversified my business offering 10 years ago. I find shoestrings very hard work. I like big budgets. I saw over-supply in the arena and have been proved right as time goes on – more and more in-house folk are being made redundant and every day I see more and more kitchen table businesses setting up.
It’s quite simple to bewitch with the promise of a fast, funky website that seldom matches up to the hype when it arrives. Trust and respect for a publicist’s work is the issue; you have to provide value for money, of course, but not at your own expense. Too few say no, hungering to do the gig rather than walking away. In an age of tight budgets, difficult choices will have to be made. PR folk must make sure the very limited resources are spent on priorities; skill and relevant, intelligent strategies. I believe we should have no higher priority than investing in the future of the craft.
Publicists who don’t invest in the future of the craft urgently need to learn the following from the fate of Geoff Baker: that PR is just a job and that, if they fuck up, there are other jobs that they will have to be prepared to do.