PR is increasingly becoming the second career of choice for people
already in the public eye. Last week saw the appointment of Michael
Brunson, former political editor of ITN, at issues management specialist
Luther Pendragon. Brunson joins his former News at Ten editor Charles
Stewart-Smith in offering high-level counsel on political and
media-related matters to the consultancy’s clients.
His appointment follows that of Steve Norris, failed Tory London mayoral
candidate as front man for the party’s forthcoming general campaign.
Norris has no conventional background in communications, having served
as an MP, a government minister and director-general of the Road Haulage
Norris’ role is likely to be more ambassadorial than PR-based, but will,
nevertheless, be media-facing, image-focused and concerned with
communications in the broadest sense.
Add to these high-profile arrivals in PR that of Piers Merchant, the
former Tory MP for Beckenham, who was exposed for adultery in the run-up
to the 1997 general election. Merchant has re-emerged as campaigns
manager for the London Chamber of Commerce’s Manufacturing Group.
So why do high-profile individuals want to enter a career which normally
places a premium on discretion? What do they bring to the profession?
And what’s in it for them?
The first reason, although by no means applicable to all those who turn
to PR after a life in the media spotlight, is that it pays well. Having
a famous face on the board opens doors which might otherwise remain
shut, and therefore can command sizable fees. If a first career is over,
a second in consultancy can provide something to do in retirement which
is financially lucrative.
Stewart-Smith insists it is Brunson’s experience and not his fame that
Luther Pendragon is paying for. ’His fame is a benefit, but it is not
the reason we are taking him on,’ he says. Brunson will not be handling
media training, drafting press releases or fielding enquiries. However
his contacts and 14 years of experience at the political coalface will
be tapped by clients.
In the case of Norris, the money is the least important aspect of an
appointment likely to be formalised in the next couple of weeks. Indeed,
it is Norris’ reluctance to eschew the cash-strewn boardrooms of the
City that has prevented his role with the party turning into a full-time
post as campaigns chief.
In this instance, as in others, a more significant factor is the urge to
remain in the public eye. When a character of some renown has spent many
years appearing on television screens and in the news pages, the slide
to obscurity can be unsettling and the impulse to stem it little short
of compelling. ’If you have lived your whole professional life in the
front line, treading a daily high-wire, the sense of wanting to continue
that is strong,’ says one key Norris aide.
While money, self-fulfilment and the urge to remain famous are the most
apparent pull factors for the famous entering the PR fray, the question
of what they bring to the party is more uncertain.
It is clear that established PR operators regard the arriviste tendency
with more than a hint of suspicion. Quentin Bell, founder of QBO and one
of the profession’s more high-profile figures, is resentful of the new
boys taking the top jobs. ’This is the bane of the PR world,’ he
’These guys are brought in as trophies to show that the agency has
Bell considers arriving in PR from another career in your mid-50s to be
the height of impudence. ’Just because they’ve been a success in, say,
journalism, doesn’t mean they know PR.’
Max Clifford, one of PR’s most flamboyant practitioners, agrees that
apart from famous faces, the latest arrivals to PR have little to
He resents the evident assumption that PR is straightforward enough for
a novice to be an instant success. ’It remains to be seen whether Norris
will be able to create, manage and protect an image successfully. What
does he know about the papers apart from being exposed by them?’
This may be uncharitable, since Norris spent three months in the mayoral
election campaign observing at close quarters how the news media latch
on to a specific item of interest and take control of a story.
Famous faces have credibility. They also manage to adequately perform a
trick which many PROs complain is a tough one - to break into the
Jamie Shea, the NATO spokesman who last week decided against joining
Burson-Marsteller after a sustained period of wooing from the world’s
largest PR firm, would have been a major catch for just that reason.
The general trend of the famous moving into PR seems to be causing more
problems than it solves. Many journalists view moving into PR as
selling-out, and are sceptical of those who do so. Likewise, PROs are
wary of the sole famous face in the building, capturing the glory
without having had to put in the 70 hours a week of an account
However, as the media exerts an ever-greater influence on people’s lives
and PR becomes a correspondingly more attractive career option, expect
to see more, not less of this growing trend.