The Big Interview: Lynne Franks - The godmother of PR

The legendary Lynne Franks talks to Cathy Bussey about public relations, women in business and how she really feels about Absolutely Fabulous.

The godmother of PR: Lynne Franks
The godmother of PR: Lynne Franks

[Photo: Belinda Lawley]

Greeting PRWeek at her new Covent Garden networking club, Lynne Franks is in a reflective mood. At 62, she is working harder than ever and the culmination of her recent efforts is B.Hive, a beautifully presented club where women can do business.

The club is a partnership with Regus, which provides work spaces and business support services. It is a reflection of Franks' personality - gloriously feminine, welcoming and friendly and, charmingly, a little OTT. The walls alternately feature beautiful artwork, inspiring quotes and commandments from Franks herself, and even the toilets have chandeliers.

As Franks, dressed in a purple sweater dress and biker boots, settles down for tea and a chat, it is unclear what to expect from her. The founder of the iconic 80s agency Lynne Franks PR has a razor-sharp business mind, but in recent years, aided by her notorious appearance on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2007, she has occasionally veered into 'wacky' territory. She is said to have been the inspiration for the hit TV show Absolutely Fabulous, a claim she has always denied. And she left the PR industry to work on Seed, her network empowering women to succeed in business. So, is the real Lynne Franks Ab Fab, a dynamic businesswoman or just a bit batty?

- It has been a while since you spoke in PRWeek. What have you been up to?

During the past ten years, I have been focused on Seed, and the whole feminine way of doing business. It's amazing that I got Regus, which provides facility management services, to do B.Hive with me and it's doing really well. We're opening in Manchester, Scotland, Birmingham and Bristol in the spring. I'm also working on a book on influence, that looks back, at the present and forwards. I'm working with HSBC and taking on a bigger project for International Women's Day, and working on a major fashion and music event to be held at the O2 in 2012.

- So you're not that busy then...

I'm probably busier now than I ever have been. I'm astonished I'm still this busy and can't believe it after 40 years of business, although it feels like 40 minutes. There are a lot of women - and men - of my generation still working flat out. I didn't expect to be, but if you are creative and there are opportunities out there, it is an exciting time. It sounds strange to be saying that in a recession, but having lived through several of them I know it's a time when new opportunities arise.

- What has changed in PR since you left the industry?

The comms world is changing so fast as this new space is emerging. I have been trying to define it for years. What is this new space? It's not just advertising, it's not just PR, it's not just digital, it's not just experiential - it's a round-up of all of those things. There isn't a proper word for it, yet. I had breakfast with Martin Sorrell recently and I asked him what was happening in the advertising world. He said: 'We don't call it advertising any more, we call it comms.'

- It is integrated comms, I suppose, but it's so much broader than that. The question is who owns this space? Who takes these budgets?

I don't see it being advertising, and PR agencies are probably the best placed to take ownership of it.

- What can the PR industry learn from your advocacy of women in business?

PR is apparently the only industry where women and men are paid equally. That may be true at a low level, but I don't believe it to be so higher up the ladder. PR doesn't have enough women in managerial and leadership roles, apart from women who have started their own business.

I would have thought there should be more PR specialist women as non-executives on boards. PR is a natural industry for women, as it is all about connecting and building relationships.

- By now, in 2011, there should be far more women at the top.

Look at the top showbiz agencies dealing with celebrities - why aren't there women doing that? Or don't they want to be in that area?

I ask the questions, but I don't have the answers and I don't know why.

I even look at Frank PR and wonder how did the one agency that people think holds the heritage of Lynne Franks PR, which was all about women and the feminine way of doing business, end up being run by men? I don't get it. Come on, girls!

- Who has taken your crown as the doyen of PR?

Matthew Freud has had my crown for years. If I think of a big, good agency, I think of Freuds. It is a great agency and he is a very clever operator. I have a lot of respect for Matthew Freud.

- In 2002, you told PRWeek: 'I don't think PR is measurable.' Do you still stand by this?

I know there's more and more demand for proof, but what I said in 2002 is correct. It is not how many people the message gets to, it's the reaction or how they feel when they get that information.

It's about trust, on so many levels. Look at Gillian McKeith on I'm A Celeb last year. After she was evicted, she sent some of her breakfast bars into the jungle.

You could say, 11 million people now know she has her own brand of breakfast bars. But what happened was that the celebrities said they were not going to eat them and threw them on the fire!

- Let's talk about I'm a Celeb, as you were on it yourself a few years ago. How was it?

It was awful. So many people said I was in PR and should have known better.

But I was coming up to my 60th birthday, and I've always liked camping and the outdoors. I thought I was only a minor part of the show, but they cast it very cleverly.

They asked who I didn't want to be out there with and I said somebody who dominates the camera or is misogynistic.

So they set me up with Janice Dickinson and Rodney Marsh. It was as uncomfortable as it looked and the tasks really are disgusting and revolting. But I learned a lot and I don't regret doing it.

- What did you learn?

I understand a lot more about the whole celebrity culture. For me, life is about learning and it was amazing to have an opportunity to step into that world and see what it is like.

It's interesting to see the insanity of it. But don't feel sorry for celebrities.

Everyone knows what they are doing.

You buy into it, you have to take it as it comes.

If people want out, they can get out. It's very dangerous for the ego and psyche, and a lot of people can't handle it, so they get messed up.

And now to Absolutely Fabulous.

You have strongly denied that the character of Edina was based on you and dismissed attempts by journalists to discuss it, but you called your autobiography Absolutely Now and your own press materials reference the show.

It was a real shock at the time. Now, years later, I feel great affection for the show and the characters. I certainly didn't at the time, but then I was very oversensitive about the whole thing because there were similarities.

There's no point in me not acknowledging that, everybody else does.

My book, Absolutely Now, went to number four in LA because I got huge publicity based on me being the inspiration for Edina.

I partly was - not wholly, but partly. It was the world I introduced Dawn (French) and Jennifer (Saunders) to.

There's one episode about being backstage at the British Fashion Awards and they had actually been there with me.

It was all exaggerated, of course.

So, why the previous denials?

At the time, I felt upset and hurt because I adored Jennifer, she was my friend. When I was friends with her, I was having a good time and partying, and she would see me in these situations.

She asked me to go on the show and I didn't. What an idiot. I would have loved to have been on the show. I totally overreacted. When I was doing Absolut Vodka, we held an event and Jennifer agreed to turn on the lights. It was billed as 'come to the Absolutely Fabulous turning on of the lights'. She did it - but I didn't even go to it.

I was so mortified. I had not learned how to deal with it and I took myself far too seriously. Now I think - what a compliment. Thank you. I'm just sorry I wasn't able to laugh at myself a bit more.


2010: Opens flagship B.Hive women's business hub in partnership with the Regus Group

2009: Appears on Celebrity Come Dine With Me

2008: Develops the first SeedWorks Women's Business Centre

2007: Appears on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here

2001: Founds the Seed network

2000: Launches The Seed Handbook in UK, US and Australia

1998: Launches Globalfusion PR in LA

1992: Leaves Lynne Franks PR to become a spokesperson on ethical business and women's rights

1988: Sells Lynne Franks PR

1984: Creates British Fashion Awards

1970: Founds Lynne Franks PR


PRWeek is to hold a series of exclusive networking events in 2011, beginning with a Women in PR event at B.Hive in Covent Garden on 17 February.

The invite-only event will feature speeches from Lynne Franks and Caroline Kinsey, founder and CEO of Cirkle.

Invitations will shortly be sent to a guest list selected by the PRWeek editorial team, featuring high-profile and up-and-coming women in the UK PR industry.

The event, in association with Cirkle, will present a fantastic opportunity for women working in the industry to share thoughts and experiences and make new contacts over a glass of wine.

Attendees will also be offered a month's free membership to B.Hive, the networking club for women set up by Lynne Franks in partnership with the Regus Group. Tickets, priced at £10 each, will shortly be available to all invited guests.

Watch Sally Costerton, chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton EMEA, and Pam Lyddon, CEO of Bright Star Digital, discuss networking in a PRWeek podcast.

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