Two weeks ago, PRWeek asked 30 senior journalists and comms chiefs to name the best-connected PR operators in the fields of business and finance, entertainment and politics.
The ‘winners’ – Brunswick founder and chairman Alan Parker, The Outside Organisation CEO Alan Edwards and Chime Communications chairman Tim Bell – have contacts including David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, David and Victoria Beckham, and Rupert Murdoch (PRWeek, 11 May).
But what do they have in common? Most obviously they are men, and also that they have be involved with PR for more than 25 years. Most of their senior and influential contacts they met when they were younger. They worked with editors when they were cub reporters or met MPs when they were special advisors.
For Alan Edwards, the rise of celebrity culture has helped catapult some of his contacts up the career ladder. As a young publicist, for example, he arranged Piers Morgan’s first big celebrity interview. Similarly, Edwards met former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and The Sun’s Rebekah Wade early in their careers.
These long relationships build confidence. One Parker admirer says his relationships are ‘based on trust and shared experience, going back decades,’ adding: ‘he never leaks – he is utterly trustworthy.’
The fact that high-level industry contacts have an esteemed opinion of him has often won him business, as was the case when Carrefour dropped Tulchan Communications for Brunswick following the installation of chairman Luc Vandevelde, an old Parker ally (PRWeek, 19 February 2005).
Parker, Edwards and Bell are all described as having the ability to ‘give good copy’ and take journalists into their confidence, while simultaneously tending to the best interests of the client.
They all run their own agencies, and have a history of working for newsworthy clients.
But some journalists argue that the next generation of networkers are already closing in. One journalist says: ‘Some of the big boys have grown lazy. If you want to talk to the people really in the know in Westminster, it is often best to start with the younger lobbyists.’
It may cheer those hoping to emulate Bell’s success that he made his contacts in a different and more challenging era, according to Luther Pendragon founder George Pitcher, now MD of his own consultancy, Bridgit Consulting. ‘As PR begins to be taken more seriously, the imperative is on the politicians to network with PRs,’ he says. ‘It used to be the other way around.’
The power may be in the hands of the old school at present, but it seems the future could be bright for the next generation of effective networkers.
When Alan Parker married Jane Hardman (top) – with Gordon Brown, David Cameron in the congregation – it was impossible to question his status as the City’s best-connected PR man.
Parker was the son of former British Rail chairman Sir Peter Parker, which helped establish contacts. As one City journalist says: ‘Being a rail boss was then almost like being a cabinet minister.’
One insider says that Parker’s relationships are often arts related: ‘Never underestimate the importance of the arts at the top end of society.’Brunswick has a dedicated arts division, and Parker – who came a joint 619th in the 2007 Sunday Times Rich List – is a collector of antiquities.
He was involved with the conception of Comic Relief. Today, Brunswick allows charities to use its offices as a base: both Pilotlight, which helps smaller charities grow, and We Are What We Do – behind the much-hyped Anya Hindmarch ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ – are based there.
Parker is also on the board of Business Commitment to the Environment, The Soil Association, The Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration and The Temenos Academy. He is a founder of China Now – the 2008 festival designed to bring the UK and China closer, which is backed by HSBC chairman Stephen Green.
One of Parker’s brothers, Nathaniel, is an actor who starred in the BBC’s Inspector Lynley Mysteries, the other, Oliver, is a film director and husband of actress Thandie Newton.
Conservative peer Lord Bell – often described as ‘Thatcher’s favourite PR man’ – remains highly influentialin the Tory party.
Bell is still in touch with Thatcher and sat next to her at her 80th birthday party. He worked as a spokesman for her son Mark when he was charged for his role in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.
But he has also hired many people at Chime who have New Labour connections, working personally with Alan Johnson MP – likely to succeed John Prescott as deputy prime minister.
Ringing the changes:
Bell is said to have a great memory for names and faces, and spends hours on the telephone. Being a member of the House of Lords gives him a senior political network to tap into.
Bell is perceived as a hard-living, old-school networker attending luncheon clubs during the day, and parties and members clubs such as the exclusive Mayfair Mark’s Club in the evening.
One political editor says: ‘Even though times have changed, Tim still has the ability to deliver.
When the big stories hit the fan you realise he has contacts in places you never would have guessed – his tentacles spread in all sorts of directions.’
While such contacts impress some, they make others suspicious. As another political editor says: ‘It’s like he is contaminated. You get the impression he will spin anything.’
Alan Edwards’ client roster – which has included David Bowie, the Spice Girls and the Beckhams – has opened a lot of doors, some of them quite surprising ones.
Making contact: Nelson Mandela
As well as introducing the Spice Girls to Nelson Mandela, Edwards has met politicians such as Gordon Brown on numerous occasions, introducing them to politically involved clients such as Shakira and Bon Jovi.
Journalists praise how he maintains relationships with them. Piers Morgan says: ‘Part of the problem with PROs is mistrust, but Alan is incredibly open – he takes journalists into his confidence, and he never lies.’
Naturally chatty and interested in people, Edwards finds a lot of common ground with journalists
His interest in music has seen him strike up friendships with moguls such as Express Newspapers proprietor Richard Desmond, who plays the drums in a charity band alongside mutual friend, The Who’s Roger Daltry – for whom Edwards acts as manager.
Edwards also benefited from a stint in America, which has helped him build a network of US contacts and clients, such as P Diddy and Usher.