Newsmaker: The PR man advising Nigella Lawson amid lurid headlines

When Mark Hutchinson started working with TV chef Nigella Lawson 15 years ago, he is unlikely to have bargained for this year's minefield of a divorce and a court case that has heard claims she is a habitual drug user.

Mark Hutchinson: Nigella Lawson's long-term publicist
Mark Hutchinson: Nigella Lawson's long-term publicist

This year has undoubtedly brought the greatest and most uncomfortable scrutiny of Hutchinson's client by the press and the public since he started managing her PR at Colman Getty when her first cookery book, 'How To Eat', was published in 1998.

The press attention began with the publication of photographs in June showing her now ex-husband Charles Saatchi with his hand around her throat as the couple ate at a restaurant. 

This week sympathy turned to lurid tabloid headlines seizing on evidence presented as part of a criminal trial of her former PAs, who are alleged to have committed fraud against Saatchi's company Conarco to fund a luxurious lifestyle. They deny the allegations.

An email from Saatchi to Lawson, read out as evidence, accused her of being "so off your head on drugs that you allowed the sisters to spend whatever they liked". The case for the defence is that Lawson was aware her PAs knew she was a habitual user of Class A drugs and allowed their spending.

Lawson, who has been developing her profile in the US as a judge on reality TV show 'The Taste', has so far remained silent on the photographs, her divorce from Saatchi and the accusations. She is unable to comment on the court evidence.

However, she has used Twitter to promote her cooking and acknowledge the public's support, including writing this week: "Holiday Hotcake: the perfect recipe to show thanks for all your support & to those who hashtag #teamNigella."

The strategy to keep her head below the parapet has been a wise one, according to founder Mark Borkowski, who has represented a number of celebrity clients.

"Mark Hutchinson has possibly been the closest one to the story and he’s had no other option than to follow the strategy he has, to make no comment on it. The hashtag #teamNigella was a genius touch because it has created a great deal of positive feeling for her," said Borkowski.

Hutchinson declined to speak to PRWeek about his work with Lawson because the case surrounding the alleged fraud by their former PAs is ongoing, but current and former colleagues are full of praise.

Dotti Irving, the CEO of Four Colman Getty, who was his boss until he left the agency in 2010 to set up Mark Hutchinson Management, praises him as an "excellent publicist". She adds: "I am sure that he will be doing everything he can to help Nigella in what is undoubtedly a very difficult time for her."

Stonehill Salt co-founder Rebecca Salt, with whom Hutchinson shares the author JK Rowling as a client, describes him as "wise, level-headed and principled". She says he is dealing with "a unique situation", adding: "In any crisis he’s absolutely brilliant and always knows the best course of action to take."

Today could bring another wave of crisis with Saatchi expected to take the witness stand. The former ad man and the PR man have clashed before, with Hutchinson reported to have advised Saatchi to apologise following the release of the restaurant photographs.

Saatchi has publicly criticised the advice to Lawson to say nothing and blamed him for Lawson’s refusal to back him.

Saatchi told the Mail on Sunday he was "disappointed that she was advised to make no public comment to explain that I abhor violence of any kind against women, and have never abused her physically in any way".

While Hutchinson has kept his client away from the press, Borkowski says this will come eventually, and the challenge will be how to leverage the situation to bring some good out of it.

"What she does next will test his brilliance," he says. "He has a tough job because he’s got to navigate the legal situation and decide how to engage with the media."

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