David Beckham email scandal a 'wake-up call' about danger of cyber crime on celebrity reputation

The David Beckham leaked email scandal is a wake-up call to the PR industry on the impact of cyber crime on celebrity reputations, comms professionals have told PRWeek.

Scandal: Beckham email story received substantial coverage in Monday's newspapers
Scandal: Beckham email story received substantial coverage in Monday's newspapers

Hacked and potentially damaging private emails from the former footballer obtained via the computer system of Doyen Sports, the agency run by his PR adviser Simon Oliveira, have been covered extensively across the media over the past three days.

The Daily Mirror this morning alleges that the blackmailer, from Russia, demanded between 500,000 and 1m not to make the emails public.

In the emails, Beckham allegedly labelled the UK honours system a "f*****g joke" because he has not been given a knighthood, and appeared to criticise the decision to give an honour to singer Katherine Jenkins.

Some publications interpreted the emails as suggesting Beckham had been undertaking work with the charity Unicef as a way to secure a knighthood.

There were also reports that he demanded a private jet to appear on the BBC’s Graham Norton show, among other allegations.

Media reports suggest the Beckhams obtained an injunction against the Sunday Times from publishing the leaked emails, but they were released online last week via Wikileaks-style website Football Leaks and picked up by multiple media channels.

A spokesman for Beckham has said the emails were "hacked", "doctored" and "private" from a third-party server. Regarding Unicef, the spokesman said: "David and Unicef are rightly proud of what they have and will continue to achieve together and are happy to let the facts speak for themselves."

Unicef also released a statement, saying it had not seen the hacked emails and did not want to comment on them, but emphasised the good work Beckham has done with the charity.

PRWeek asked communications professionals about the impact of the episode for Beckham, how the comms response has been handled, and the wider implications:

Steve Martin, CEO, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment

"The story is arguably less about Beckham than about hacking private emails in this way. It’s quite scary that [hackers] are now going into personal emails in the celebrity world and there’s none bigger than Beckham. That seems to be a massive step change in that area, which is worrying.

"I think the damage for Brand Beckham will be a little dented for now, but not much. I think the guy has gone through extreme highs and lows in his career and has recovered spectacularly ever since."

Regarding how the situation has been handled by Beckham’s team, Martin said: "In my view they’ve handled it in the only way that’s possible. They didn’t deny that this information was wrong. They’ve fronted up on it very quickly. What else can they say on this scenario, I don’t know.

"The worry for them will be if there is more to come. "

Mark Borkowski, founder, Borkowski.do

"From my point of view, it emphasises the big wake-up for all PRs: the security of their email systems. I’ve been banging on about this for ages and what’s frightening is it’s a pretty basic phishing scam that’s got them."

Borkowski said the revelations "will not affect the Beckham brand in the UK". He pointed to his agency’s own analytics that show a 20 per cent drop in his own brand value after "quite an intensive weekend" of publicity.

Borkowski said: "It’s now about two things: a) recovery, and b) whether this is this the end of the story?

"Is there more to come from this stash of emails? I worry if there’s anything in there between the dialogue between his agent or his gofer and Simon Oliveira. If there’s more then we’ll take another view."

He added that the revelations would "make all charities think very hard about how they use celebrities in the future".

Emily Rogers, PR director, Rampart Public Relations

"Compared to his footballing peers, David Beckham has maintained an almost impossibly clean image in recent years. The fall from grace is thus that bit further, and the bump down to earth that bit harder.

"This weekend, Beckham went from 'Goldenballs' to "grubby chancer" (Jan Moir, Daily Mail). Even pictures of him being the consumate family man, posted on his personal social media pages this weekend - have been widely rejected as transparent and cynical. The damage is immense. Whether and how he can bounce back remains to be seen.

"Simon Oliveira's team has made a couple of bold statements in the wake of the scandal; that the emails have been tampered with, and that nothing else will come out about Becks. If either of these turn out not to be true, the fallout will be considerably worse for both Beckham and for his comms team. It's hard to imagine how either will bounce back from such a revelation.

"Reminding the public of Beckham’s charity work is important, but the likes of Jan Moir are unlikely to accept this as a payoff, especially now that they've got their teeth into him. I hope, for their sake, they have more up their sleeve.

"Finally, claiming that their emails have been hacked is not necessarily a wise move in terms of their own business - with the likes of Beckham on their books, one would have thought that having a watertight email security system is of the utmost importance to new and existing high-profile clients."

Paddy Hobbs, head of sport, Pretty Green

"The conversation has already began to shift and by focusing on the criminality of the source, and ultimately undermining the credibility of the entire story, enough doubt has been cast for Beckham to almost become the victim.

"You get the sense that the first leak is merely the tip of the iceberg so Team Beckham will potentially have a lot more work to do."

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