To the uninitiated it may sound like Vogue meets Spinal Tap, but
woe betide the fashion guru that smirks at this icon. The woman who
brought us T-shirts with slogans (the latest teenage fad), yoga
technique Ashtanga and conical brassieres has once again given us a
sign. On past form it's unlikely to be ignored. As one commentator put
it last year: 'If Madonna likes chess, we like chess.'
Back in 1994 it looked different. Films such as Body of Evidence and
Dangerous Game plus the Bedtime Stories album had been received
unenthusiastically by the critics. The fashionistas - not reknowned for
their sense of sentimentality towards waning style icons - scented
blood. Not only has Madonna reversed the slide, she has given a PR
masterclass in the process.
Last year she held her first UK concert for seven years. She plumped for
Brixton Academy - capacity 4,200 - and set ticket prices at pounds
Was this PR madness?
Well yes, except tickets were not 'sold' - going instead to media
outlets to distribute and ensuring the kind of feverish editorial
promotion that no amount of ad space could match.
The Sun was offered bribes in return for one of their competition
tickets; fans paid more than pounds 1,000 for a ticket in auction. After
all this, the fact the concert received lukewarm reviews seemed
With the kind of timing at which Madonna excels, any doubts about her
concert were banished when she married film director Guy Ritchie at
Scotland's Skibo Castle four weeks later. Once again, the near-blackout
on news and information on the couple ensured a desperate press corps
was won over.
Security teams armed with thermal imaging devices stalked undercover
paparrazi 'commando' units who had infiltrated Skibo's grounds. An
'SAS-trained' duo who hid in the altar were only caught as they
attempted to flee with videotape of the service.
Rarely has the media been so outfought - the only confirmation that a
wedding had even taken place for the 500 media surrounding Skibo came
from a terse acknowledgement from the vicar.
Outside Organisation MD Alan Edwards knows the pitfalls in organising
celebrity weddings - as the PR brains behind Victoria and David
Beckham's nuptials. He says: 'It was brilliantly done. They gave
everybody nothing and the media still went away feeling good about it.
That's hard to achieve.'
For him, Madonna has an instinctive mastery of image that is shared by
only a few greats. Edwards points to her knack of appealing across
markets: 'She can do The Sunday Times magazine and find a mad angle for
the tabloids at the same time.'
One would not expect, for example, a star who shows teenagers which
shade of lipstick to wear, to appeal to the NME. But news editor Andre
Paine points out that her music is consistently more interesting than
that of other major stars. 'Whereas The Stones will release a rock
record every five years, Madonna will always do something different,' he
Just as Madonna is skilled at adopting trends, she ensures her music
retains a broad-based appeal by choosing credible collaborators such as
William Orbit. Since hitting a low at the time of Bedtime Stories, when
she last granted an interview to NME, she has soared above the fray.
Such a talent, and talented self-publicist, is an image-maker's dream,
though some say that shouldn't detract from the praise due to her PRO,
Barbara Charone. Other music industry PROs are impressed by the fact
that publicist and star have worked together for nearly 15 years -
lending continuity and consistency to their relationship.
Charone - an American who served a spell at Rolling Stone magazine as a
reporter, has been dubbed 'the closest thing in pop to Alastair
So far does her mystique extend that the Evening Standard reported a
news blackout had been imposed prior to Wednesday's concert to avoid
overloading fans with information.
Charone cheerfully denies this. She says: 'We supplied loads of
Madonna's instincts are spot on - she seems so good at PR because she's
a fantastic artist. At the same time, she will take suggestions.'
Occasionally, clouds appear on the horizon. Last year Madonna was
embroiled in a row over her name being used for a porn website. When
legal action was launched, the website owner offered it for free to a US
hospital bearing the Madonna name - but the pop icon snatched it back
through the courts, brushing aside the hospital's protests and the
potential for reputational damage involved.
Another such cloud comes in the form of a new book by Princess Diana
biographer Andrew Morton, which threatens to delve into her
closely-guarded private life. Madonna is reported to have instructed
friends not to talk to the author and Morton may find his latest target
better defended than previous victims. Don't bet against Madonna winning
that battle too.
As Edwards says, those in PR can only have the highest admiration for
the pop goddess. If she formed a PR agency, it would soon become the
Saatchi & Saatchi of its sector, he says. Warm praise indeed.