A frumpy middle-aged woman with bushy hair opens her mouth and is instantly propelled to stardom. Sounds unlikely, but when Susan Boyle stepped on to the stage to audition for Britain’s Got Talent, it became the most viewed YouTube clip ever.
The reality shows that currently saturate TV schedules promise to transform ‘ordinary’ people into stars overnight.
But for every person who makes the transition from mid-tier celebrity to bona fide superstar – Leona Lewis, Cheryl Cole, Katie Price – there are a thousand others who fade into obscurity. In this very public game of snakes and ladders, how can you ensure your client reaches the top?
If they are looking to carve out a long-term career, their public persona needs to be carefully managed from the start.
Sara Lee, publicity and comms manager at Talkback Thames, the production firm behind The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, says: ‘They have to send out the right message and get people to relate to them. If the public can identify with someone, it can buy into them much more.’
Being likeable is crucial to garnering this support, believes The Outside Organisation’s media director Stuart Bell, a strategy demonstrated by his client, X Factor winner Leona Lewis. So too is understanding the power of the media.
‘After a life-changing event it’s very easy to think you’re it, but it’s only the beginning of a very long story. People need to be respectful of the media and prepared to work with them,’ he warns.
He adds publicists need to move quickly. ‘If you want a client to move beyond 15 minutes of fame, you have to prove they are talented, and you have a limited window to get that point across because the public is quick to move on,’ he says.
Although it seems counter-intuitive, maintaining interest in an artist can actually mean limiting media interviews to three or four key pieces a year. ‘We receive 20 to 100 requests a week for artists, but it’s about cherry picking,’ says Lee. ‘If you are doing Woman’s Weekly and Women’s Own every week, Vogue and Harper’s won’t be interested. The more elusive and selective you are, the more likely it is the bigger glossies will come knocking.’
Hackford Jones co-founder Simon Jones agrees: ‘A less is more approach works well for building a credible media profile. One feature in a credible publication such as a broadsheet supplement, a good monthly glossy or a respected weekly magazine is worth ten times as much as several features in more downmarket titles.’
Taylor Herring managing partner James Herring advises using social media to harness the emotional and financial
investment of viewers in reality show contestants.
‘You can capitalise on those eight million viewers by directly engaging with them and continuing to share the journey,’ he says. ‘It helps fill in the gaps between promoting things and is a lot easier to do than worrying about how you’re going to get into The Sun’s Bizarre column.’
It is a tactic also used by celebrities having a hard time in the mainstream press. ‘It has worked for Jonathan Ross, Lily Allen and Russell Brand. The old-school notion of a fan club is back,’ says Herring.
EdenCancan director Nick Ede adds that charity alignment is also critical. ‘Victoria Beckham is a good example of this,’ he says. ‘It gets you recognised by various different bodies, including the Government and The Prince’s Trust.’
But PR can only go so far. The Corporation CEO and founder Gary Farrow points out the importance of having a marketable talent, despite the plethora of D-list celebs littering the media landscape.
‘It is hard to do anything with the people who are famous just for being famous,’ says Farrow. ‘A pig in a Hermes scarf is
still a pig.’
The man for whom EMI shelled out £80m in 2002 is now more frequently sighted playing poker in his hometown. Musical output has dried up and so has his cheeky chappie persona, although new publicist Murray Chalmers is hoping to reverse the tide.
Cole has pulled off an impressive rebrand, from mouthy Geordie facing racism allegations to the media’s golden girl in under six years. Being in the UK’s biggest girl band, having a good publicist (journalist fave Sundraj Sreenivasan) and marrying another celebrity has helped (another example is Lee Mead’s recent tie-up with Denise Van Outen). But Cole’s best move was becoming a judge on The X Factor. This allowed the public to see a different side to her without a journalist’s harsh editing. A moving picture, it seems, is worth a thousand words.
Katona split with long-term publicist Max Clifford in September after a bizarre appearance on This Morning. Her regular column in OK! magazine was axed last year, but she has just announced the launch of a new reality TV show. EdenCancan director Nick Ede calls her fall from grace ‘ridiculous’. ‘She’s a bit lost.’
Katie Price aka Jordan
Price’s steady progress up the celebrity ladder is a study in savvy PR, allied to an impressive understanding of the media landscape. Plenty of Page 3 girls have fallen by the wayside, but Price has transformed her charms into an estimated fortune of £30m from books, TV and brand endorsements. Central to this success is a PR strategy that has repositioned her as a horse-riding family woman, significantly expanding her audience and netting her Cosmopolitan’s Woman of the Year award in 2007. While her recent separation from husband Peter André comes as a surprise, industry experts say Price will no doubt manage the fallout to maximum effect, despite her recent split from long-time publicist Claire Powell.
The first winner of The X Factor was dropped by record label Syco 12 weeks after the release of his first album. His crime was that he refused to play the game. As one publicist notes: ‘He was arrogant and treated the media with contempt.’ Once at the bottom of the media pile, it is hard to climb back up.
Scored a PR blinder. Her first interview was with Harper’s Bazaar and she hasn’t looked back since, with a series of glossy magazine interviews under her belt. A classic example of selecting the right interviews, keeping her head down and letting her talent speak for itself.
The dancer: Kristina Rihanoff
Specialist skill Ballroom dancing
Launchpad Strictly Come Dancing
Rihanoff burst into the limelight during the sixth series of Strictly Come Dancing in 2008, when she was partnered with veteran political journalist John Sergeant.
Sergeant’s hapless performances became the show’s strongest storyline, with Rihanoff’s skimpy outfits attracting their fair share of column inches. Soon, the Russian dancer was being profiled in the Daily Mail, while rumours of an affair with co-dancer Vincent Simone helped stoke her celebrity appeal.
With the right public positioning, says EdenCancan director Nick Ede, Rihanoff may have what it takes to crack the A-list.
‘She could potentially move up the ladder in the UK, because she’s got that Marilyn Monroe look. But she needs to align herself with charities and position herself as someone the public likes,’ says Ede, mindful of the negative coverage that Rihanoff’s affair has generated recently.
The singer: Susan Boyle
Specialist skill Singing
Launchpad Britain’s Got Talent
Publicist Talkback Thames/Dada PR
Taylor Herring’s managing partner James Herring says: ‘This is the classic British underdog story. I would advise her to keep her feet on the ground. I don’t blame her for getting a haircut; who wouldn’t want to smarten themselves up if they were in the public eye? But she should remember why she was made famous in the first place. If she walks too far from that, she’ll be shunned. Don’t forget who put you there and why.’
Talkback Thames media and comms manager Sara Lee, who has been handling her PR, says a celebrity-style makeover would spell trouble.
‘She should be cherry picking key things to do and speaking to key publications. One big mistake she could make is if someone transforms her with plastic surgery and turns her into a glamorous woman. If she turned from an ugly duckling into a swan, she would dramatically alienate a lot of her current fans.’
Others advise less exposure. ‘The most important thing is that we don’t get Susan Boyle fatigue,’ says EdenCancan director Nick Ede.
‘I would completely hide her away in case she’s ghastly on the next live show.
‘Don’t give her the makeover – we fell in love with somebody who was raw. In the end, it’s the voice and that anyone-can-do-it PR spin that is working.’
A long-term strategy or a quick cash fix? Celebrity PR in a recession
For the agencies charged with turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse, it can be a difficult balancing act. The temptation of short-term gain has to be weighed against the importance of developing a celebrity brand with a longer view in mind.
These concerns, says EdenCancan director Nick Ede, have only intensified since the onset of the recession. ‘A good PR person should have the long-term interests of their client at heart, but if they are being offered £500,000 for an endorsement deal, it can be difficult,’ says Ede. ‘There’s an economic downturn and people need to get paid.’
To many, the entire celebrity PR landscape has been irrevocably skewed by the proliferation of disposable talent shows. At a recent debate at the London College of Communications, publicist Max Clifford and Borkowski PR founder Mark Borkowski discussed whether PR professionals were to blame. Their conclusions were not always encouraging.
‘It’s peddling of hope,’ said Borkowski. ‘In terms of return on investment, it’s difficult to make money out of a huge movie. But it is very easy to pick up an act such as Susan Boyle. It can make lots of money and then disappear, and then you move on to the next thing.’
Clifford, who claimed he has only ever had two reality stars on his books, pointed to Rebecca Loos, whom he previously represented. Loos’ celebrity appeal has fizzled in recent years, with Clifford blaming her decision to break up a strong team of handlers.
Borkowski told PRWeek: ‘Good comms people should notice if people don’t have a future and stop selling them empty dreams. A good publicist dumps ego to one side, nurtures client ambition and pursues opportunities with a certain amount of ruthlessness.’
This is sometimes easier said than done, argues Ede, because of the influence of money. ‘You have to think about the integrity of the celebrity, but when somebody throws a lot of money at you, you may have to think about integrity in the right way.’