Last week's state visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni was greeted by the media with the sort of breathless coverage generally reserved for the Oscars' red carpet. While camera-friendly Bruni's appeal is obvious, the vast amount of coverage surprised media insiders and PROs alike.
The generally rational Daily Telegraph compared Bruni to iconic American first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis and asked whether the Italian model was 'the new Princess Diana'. National newspapers not renowned for their love of continental politics joined in, with the Daily Mail and the Daily Express devoting multiple pages to glowing reviews of the visit, despite their usual Euro-scepticism.
| Sarkozy/Bruni media coverage|
Number of pages devoted to this topic
- Daily Mail Thursday 7 Friday 6
- Daily Telegraph Thursday 5 Friday 3
- Sun Thursday 4 Friday 3
- Independent Thursday 2 Friday 3
- Daily Express Thursday 3 Friday 1
- FT Thursday 3 Friday 0
'I thought the visit would get mega-billing, but if you'd told me how much a week ago, I'm not sure I'd have believed it,' says Nick Wood, a former journalist at the Express and the Times who now runs consultancy Media Intelligence Partners. 'However, Carla Bruni is fantastically photogenic and it's almost irresistible for newspaper editors and picture editors to have someone with her looks on the cover.'
The visual editor of the FT, Jamie Han, agrees Bruni's glamorous appearance prompted media interest, but denies the visit garnered disproportionate coverage. FT.com ran a 19-page slideshow of large, glossy photos of the president and his wife last week, complete with long-winded captions reminiscent of a Hello! magazine celebrity spread. 'There have been a lot of images coming on the wires,' admits Han.
'But I'm not sure we have that much on our website compared with US election coverage, the Tibet crisis or the credit crunch, for example. Any state visit is a very photogenic event and a lot of the newspapers are very interested in Sarkozy's new wife at the moment.'
Despite the appearance of a media free-for-all, the comms teams at Buckingham Palace, Downing Street and the House of Commons have carefully orchestrated the entire operation, according to Wood, who has had experience on both sides of such large-scale events.
'There are access and pooling arrangements, all very tightly controlled,' he explains. 'Number 10 and the House of Commons will allocate particular places inside the House. It's a sketch writer's event so they'll get a ticket from each respective paper. The Press Association will be given pride of place. You can't allow a free-for-all.'
For lobbyists, Sarkozy's visit provided an opportunity to target both the French and British governments and to exploit the proposed 'entente formidable'. Notable success stories from the past week appeared to include the multibillion-pound defence contract handed to Airbus parent company EADS, and French energy giant electricite de France's British nuclear power station deal.
However, according to a top lobbyist, these agreements would have been cemented well in advance of the state visit as a result of years of campaigning. 'The agreements signed at the Emirates stadium were sewn up months ago,' says Graham McMillan, CEO of corporate comms consultancy Open Road.
'It's a big PR thing; it could have been announced long before the visit. These summits are pretty meaningless. EADS was going to happen anyway. That was straightforward commercial negotiation. The nuclear lobby, like electricite de France, will have been talking to the French and British governments very closely for months, if not years.'
McMillan sees the anti-China interest groups as particularly savvy in their use of the presidential visit to secure coverage. 'The Tibet campaigners have been all over the media; they're in touch with all heads of state,' he says.
However, McMillan understands Sarkozy's opposition to the Beijing Games as a personal view rather than a response to the human rights lobby - and a luxury that Brown cannot afford.
'This summer, there will be an eight-minute televised handover to London 2012. For Britain not to be there would be inconceivable, and Brown knows that. The problem doesn't exist for Sarkozy.'
Meanwhile, PROs and journalists alike wonder whether Sarkozy's visit and the accompanying media frenzy has actually improved the president's reputation? Wood isn't sure. 'The UK public now know that Sarkozy is a little guy with a gorgeous wife,' he says. 'However, he does seem to have a genuine interest in relations with Britain.'
The Times features writer Sarah Vine is more optimistic - especially for Bruni. 'What had been a dreadful romantic embarrassment is suddenly looking like a PR triumph,' she writes. 'That is what we saw this week: the first sparks of a potentially stratospheric, old-style first lady.'