Jade Goody is the kind of potential client that would have most publicists running for the hills.
But O’Brien, 38, who set up AOB Communication with Jane Austin in June 2005, makes an impressive pitch as to why Goody, whom he describes only partly in jest as a ‘celebrity without portfolio’, has good prospects for rehabilitation from her Celebrity Big Brother trial by media.
‘The most important and positive thing is that she still sells newspapers and magazines,’ he says. ‘Now, when those two things go away, then you’ve got a serious problem.’
Sitting in an informal meeting room in the building that AOB shares with a commercial production studio in Camden, O’Brien confounds the stereotypes of the celebrity agent and former showbiz reporter by appearing both serious and diligent as he outlines the strategy that he hopes will turn around Goody’s fortunes.
A media blackout – as reputedly suggested by Goody’s former agent John Noel Management – would be, he believes, a disaster. Goody has, uniquely among reality TV contestants, held the interest of the public for four years by leading a life that would challenge the credibility of a soap opera script. To take the soap opera off-air, he believes, could backfire.
‘If you go away, who says that you are going to come back?’ he points out. ‘She did something indefensible, she acted badly, she was a bully and she was aggressive, but not a racist. The majority of people don’t think she’s a racist, but the thing is that it is a story that sold. She was bankable celebrity and the story had a hard news agenda’ .
So the strategy is to trust that Goody’s chaotic life can provide the kind of media fodder that will allow O’Brien to manage the interest from newspapers, magazines and TV.
Meanwhile, O’Brien will be working on generating a long-term project that he believes will return Goody’s value as a sellable commodity.
It is not without its risks. O’Brien admits the racist tag will be hard to shift in the media. Meanwhile, the public and media’s continuing fascination will mean nothing if O’Brien can’t convince the broadcast executives and marketing managers that Goody is once again ‘safe to hire’.
For O’Brien and AOB, success would be a huge profile boost. The business currently divides its portfolio between showbiz clients, handled by O’Brien, and advertising, digital, film production and branding clients, handled by Austin. The business has three additional employees.
The majority of O’Brien’s clients are venues and he often handles showbiz events. But his only other current celebrity client is Jen Hunter from TV programme Make Me A Supermodel, meaning much is riding on his work with Jade.
Two years after moving into PR, he believes it is always important to work with journalists rather than shutting them out. An early experience when Ian Hyland, TV critic at the News of the World and previously best man at his wedding, wrote a negative piece about client Nancy Dell’Olio suggests he is not naïve about the testing nature of the relationship. The two are friends again but it ‘took a while’.
Earlier celebrity experiences with Kate Garraway, Dell’Olio and Lembit Opik have shown O’Brien can both fight fire and successfully develop his celebrity clients’ careers. Jen Hunter completed a national promotion for Nokia and he set up Dell’Olio’s first foray into TV on MTV. Yet Goody will be a much bigger challenge.
Jon Roseman of The Roseman Organisation, who represents Garraway, worked with O’Brien when he moved into PR and says he is a ‘professional’, describing how O’Brien spent 48 hours rewriting MTV scripts so that Nancy could appear more fluent in English.
Roseman believes O’Brien will be up for the task ahead of him but doesn’t envy him: ‘PR is in the lap of the gods. But Jade is undoubtedly fractured. If he can turn her around then maybe he can move on to Anthea Turner.’
CV - Sean O'Brian
Co-director, Austin O’Brien Communications
Showbiz editor, The People
Senior features writer, News of the World
Showbiz reporter, Sunday Mirror