Celebrity PR: When tabloids attack

When celebrity misdemeanours come under media fire, quick action is needed to fight back, finds Mary Cowlett.

As tabloid tales featuring the likes of one-time This Morning presenter John Leslie and former EastEnders star Elaine Lordan show, the fame game can be tough. One minute you're a hero and the next, the opposite.

From TV and soap stars to pop and sports idols, no high-profile personality in the UK is safe from the power of the red-tops to expose the scandals, disasters, heartaches and speculation that most would prefer to keep under wraps.

For some, such as Robbie Williams, reports about rowdy nights out and lonely nights in can be shrugged off as harmless fun and are almost certainly career enhancing. But when other celebrities find themselves the subject of media stories featuring drugs, sexual misbehaviour or the law, the stakes go up and it's a question of damage limitation and protecting financial interests.

Once the tabloids do attack with ammunition that is true, most celebrity PR specialists agree that the first rule of protection is to take advantage of the good relationships built on the path to fame.

'Hell hath no fury like a tabloid reporter scorned,' says Neil Reading, managing director of Neil Reading PR, whose entertainment clients include Leslie Ash, Lenny Henry and former Brookside and Holby City actress Lisa Faulkner. 'Inevitably, if the tabloids have a great story, then they will run it. But if you have excellent relationships with the editors and senior executives, then you can do deals to dilute some of the damage in some way.'

By this, Reading alludes to the tactics of offering up the celebrity 'my story in my words' confession, and trying to gain copy and picture approval wherever possible.

In addition, like other personal PR specialists, Reading claims that cementing high-level media relationships means that when negative stories arise, bargaining pleas can be made. 'There are situations where you can agree to help with parts 'a' and 'b' of a story, but only if they leave out part 'c',' he says.

This was the type of action, however, that the News of the World claimed former FA comms director Colin Gibson used in the recent Sven Goran Eriksson/Faria Alam story, which caused such a furore.

Nevertheless, Max Clifford, whose most recent celebrity clients include ex-Westlife star Brian McFadden and X Factor judge Simon Cowell, highlights the value of sitting down and meeting tabloid journalists socially and ensuring that celebrities play the media game. This involves much mutual back-scratching and acceptance that tabloid journalists expect a lot more from stars than the odd exclusive interview when there are projects or commercial interests to be plugged.

'Take Cowell,' says Clifford. 'When he didn't need journalists, he'd still, for example, back an appeal or I'd phone up a radio show and say he was available,' he says. 'I don't mean that you can stop everything.

But that way, when there's a problem, people are on your side and willing to be helpful, instead of asking "Why the hell should I help you?".'

A show of humility

Yet, in situations where the full details of a scandal have been exposed, most celebrities fare better and can expect a more restrained response from the media by showing a good measure of humility and contrition.

'If what the tabloids have is indisputably true and supported by evidence, such as text messages or video tapes, it can be the right tactic to address that situation with a statement that admits wrongdoing and expresses regret,' says Ian Monk Associates founder Ian Monk.

This is something his client, England footballer Wayne Rooney, undertook in August, when the now Manchester United striker admitted to the Sunday Mirror (published 22 August) that he had visited massage parlours and prostitutes. Rooney's statement said: 'I now regret it deeply and just hope that people will understand it was the sort of mistake you make when you are young and stupid.'

Indeed, if you compare the contrasting strategies of former children's TV presenter Jamie Theakston - who, having tried to suppress a media expose, apologised fairly swiftly for his brothel incident - with Have I Got News For You's Angus Deayton - who initially looked to ride out his sex and drugs scandal - it is clear that an apparently heart-felt 'sorry' goes a long way towards preventing any long-term damage.

Although, to be fair to Deayton, in TV-land, the price of drugs scandals is always higher than revelations about sexual antics between consenting adults, as ex-Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon found to his initial cost. In addition, as a single man, Theakston was always going to get off fairly lightly.

However, not all tabloid onslaughts are about sex and drugs. In May, Karen Parlour's huge divorce settlement from husband Ray, led The Sun's Jane Moore to comment that the greed of the former Arsenal footballer's ex, 'paints her as a scorned woman hell-bent on revenge'.

But now, Karen Parlour has been allowed to retire from the media spotlight, having given interviews to journalists about the integral part she played in her husband's success by providing background support.

Meanwhile, Paula Radcliffe recently got slammed by some of the tabloids over her disappointing performance at the Athens Olympic Games.

Radcliffe, however, despite her tearful post-marathon press conference, where she expressed regret at letting people down, has a tougher job to face and it may well take another world record or gold in Beijing before her status is fully restored.

But, as Lawrence Dallaglio and David Beckham amply demonstrate, sports stars do at least have the opportunity to redeem themselves in the field of endeavour. Indeed, the England football captain's often crucial performance on the pitch since his 1998 World Cup sending off even seems to have protected him against more lurid recent tabloid headlines questioning his fidelity to his wife.

'There is a difference between celebrities and stars,' says Monk. 'With those who have talent, you tend to rebuild their profile through the brilliance of their performance in their chosen area.'

Where it becomes more tricky, however, is when the tabloids pursue those who have built their fame by selling aspects of their personality and lifestyle.

'We always advise clients to steer clear of any at-home-type pieces or wedding or family shots, as they leave you nowhere to go in terms of press intrusion and deciding what is treading over the line,' says James Herring, joint-managing director of Taylor Herring, whose clients include Abi Titmuss and Robbie Williams.

Fighting back on TV

Similarly, it's not always wise to try and fight back at the newspapers by aligning yourself with just one title. But celebrity authored articles for the tabloids can work well, while appearing on live TV is always a powerful weapon.

For example, when Amanda Holden's and Les Dennis's marriage came under the media spotlight - post-Neil Morrissey but pre-divorce - the couple discussed the strength of their relationship on Richard and Judy.

While celebrities the world over protest at the aggression and fickleness of the British tabloids, the good news for them is that - barring a criminal record for sexual abuse of children - there is no misdeed nor tabloid tirade from which it is impossible to recover.

Whatever allegations the papers may make about career meltdown, marital split or substance abuse, with a little patience, modesty and tenacity, most stars can bounce back.

REPUTATION RECOVERY

- LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO

THEN: Appointed England rugby union captain in November 1997, earning 14 international caps in two years.

OOPS!: In May 1999, the News of The World alleged confessions of drug dealing and drug taking, resulting in Dallaglio resigning his captaincy and withdrawing from a tour of Australia.

NOW: Grand Slam and Rugby World Cup winner in 2003. Retired from international competition in August with 73 caps, having succeeded Martin Johnson as England captain in January.

- CHERYL TWEEDY

THEN: Member of Girls Aloud - formed by TV programme Popstars: The Rivals - which gained the 2002 Christmas number-one slot with debut single.

OOPS!: In January 2003, widespread reports of Tweedy punching and 'racially abusing' a toilet attendant in a Guildford nightclub. Last October, found guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm but cleared of racial charges.

NOW: A regular on radio and TV as part of Girls Aloud, which won Band of the Year at the 2004 Glamour Awards and plans to release a new album at the end of November.

- JAMIE THEAKSTON

THEN: Top of The Pops presenter and Radio 1 DJ, former presenter of Live & Kicking.

OOPS!: In January 2002, Sunday People reported evidence of 'sex games' with a prostitute in a dungeon-style room in a London brothel.

NOW: Presenter and actor. Credits include West End productions of Art and Somerset Maughan's Home and Beauty, plus TV roles in Linda Green and Mad About Alice.

- ABI TITMUSS

THEN: 'Angel-faced nurse' who, in 2003, loyally stood by then-boyfriend, TV star John Leslie through his ten-month sex-charge ordeal.

OOPS!: In January 2004, 'Busty blonde' confesses to four-in-a-bed sex romps, home-made sex videos and buying and taking cocaine - loses roving reporter job with Richard and Judy.

NOW: In May 2004, was second cook to be voted off ITV1's Hell's Kitchen following a stint as the face of Television X Fantasy Channel.

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