Profile: Jonathan Morrish, director of PR and corporate comms, PPL

PPL's corporate comms chief spent many years as Michael Jackson's PR man. He tells Gemma O'Reilly what he learned from the experience.

Jonathan Morrish
Jonathan Morrish

Being Michael Jackson's PR man must have ranked alongside the world's toughest communications challenges. With each mammoth hit record came headlines highlighting his bizarre and inscrutable lifestyle.

Jonathan Morrish, the man previously charged with maintaining public relations for the King of Pop, who died on 25 June last year, is clearly willing to embrace a challenge.

Morrish now heads up comms for the music licensing industry trade body PPL, which works on behalf of performers and record company members.

The organisation is no stranger to controversy and is embroiled in an ongoing battle over the licence rates paid to PPL by the hospitality sector.

Last year, a copyright tribunal rejected a proposal by PPL that larger establishments pay a bigger tariff than smaller venues. Morrish, 59, is tight-lipped about PPL's next move but says the battle is far from over.

'We were very surprised by the severity of the tribunals,' says Morrish. 'We were surprised by the lack of understanding.'

One of his biggest challenges since he joined the organisation more than three years ago has been improving understanding of what PPL actually does.

'Often people can be hostile. If you're a small hairdresser in Torquay and someone comes and says "you're playing music and you owe us money", you're not going to have a loving approach. So one of the things that I wanted to establish when I joined was who we are, what we do and how we do it.'

Morrish admits that the organisation is not the sexiest company out there: 'If I get on the phone to a journalist and say "copyright", then someone's going to fall asleep pretty quickly. We represent 45,000 musicians, and we've got lots and lots of data. I've always thought we've got to package up what we do as attractively as we can and that's what we've been trying to do.'

While this might sound like a mammoth task, Morrish is definitely the right man for the job. After being made redundant by Sony in 2003 at the relatively advanced age of 52, Morrish took the brave step of trying the agency world. Having known fellow entertainment PR stalwart Alan Edwards for several years, Morrish joined his agency The Outside Organisation and quickly set about learning the ropes.

'It was an odd move at my age and it took me time to acclimatise,' admits Morrish. 'But the three and a half years I had at Outside made me a better PRO.'

It is clear that Morrish's time spent agency-side impressed Edwards, who says: 'Without doubt Jonathan is one of the great entertainment PR professionals, and has played a part in shaping the industry itself. I was thrilled to have him at Outside as he brought such wisdom and vision.'

A lot of that wisdom was garnered during his 28 years at music giant CBS - which later became Sony - where he worked with Jackson, Wham! and Sade, to name just a few.

Of his career, Morrish is clearly most proud of his time spent with Jackson, from when he was starting out as a member of the Jackson Five, through to his last album Invincible.

As part of this role, Morrish would fly journalists out to meet Jackson at destinations around the world and accompanied the popstar when he went on the road during his tours.

'It was unbelievable. I had some fantastic moments. When he died it made me reassess a huge chunk of my life. I like to think he's up there looking down on me and thinks that he won my trust, which I feel very good about.'

It is unsurprising that Morrish is protective of Jackson, given the amount of time he spent working with him. Morrish explains his former client's much-documented odd behaviour as being a product of his fame.

'He'd been famous from the age of three. It's a really tough game. Fame is a really difficult thing to handle and there is no rule book. Even if there was, he would have got to the end of chapter 33 and there would be no chapter 34, because you're making it up as you go along. And unless you've been in it, you do not understand that process.

'Whatever mistakes you make are going to be very public. It was a privilege to see a man who was very private, and I think who trusted me.

'Clearly someone else could have been Michael Jackson's PRO. I was the lucky one.'


JONATHAN MORRISH'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Getting my first piece of writing published - a review of an Eric Clapton album in Let It Rock (the Q of its day) in January '74. That was the entry point to the business from which everything else followed. There's no such thing as a career. It's just a confluence of people, things, timing and luck. But then luck is the residue of good planning.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Two mentors principally. My first boss Rodney Burbeck, who grounded me in the timeless principles and basics of PR, and Elly Smith, who taught me the rock 'n' roll bit. But I would have to mention Alan Edwards for his sassy smartness and impeccable contacts.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Be passionate, be diligent, know and like your subject, be imaginative, recognise that you always do business better with someone you know. No contacts book is ever too big. Read. Never rely on spell-check or Wikipedia. Give good phone, good lunch. Return phone calls. Never take no for an answer - but know when to stop.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Creativity, confidence, the ability to follow advice but forge their own path.

 

CV

2006: Director of PR and corporate comms, PPL

2003: Head of corporate PR, The Outside Organisation

1995: Vice-president, communications, Sony Music Entertainment Europe

1985: Director, corporate PR, CBS Records

1978: Manager, press and artist relations, Epic Labels, CBS Records

1976: Press officer, CBS Records

1975: House writer, CBS Records

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