A 'one-off', but not a PR, who 'did our industry a disservice': comms pros react to death of Max Clifford

PR professionals reacting to the death of Max Clifford have distanced him from the comms industry, providing scathing testimony about the former publicist who died in the middle of a prison sentence for sex offences.

Clifford arrives at his sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in 2014 (┬ęSplash News/Alamy Stock Photo)
Clifford arrives at his sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in 2014 (┬ęSplash News/Alamy Stock Photo)

Clifford, one of Britain's best-known publicists or PR professionals in recent decades, was given an eight-year sentence for sex offences at Southwark Crown Court in 2014.

His trial and conviction led some in the industry to suggest Clifford and his crimes had damaged the public perception of PR as a whole.

Clifford died on Sunday in hospital, having twice collapsed in his cell in recent days. He was 74.

Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, said: "I feel sorry for his friends and family. But it would be a lie to construct something nice to say on the death of Mr Clifford.

"He did our industry a disservice by pretending to be part of it. I note that most media outlets are describing him today as having been a publicist. That is - finally - an accurate description of his career."

In a similar vein, Peter Bowles, co-CEO of agency Dynamo, said: "Max was a showman and represented a type of publicist who genuinely believed that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ - a fact professional communicators rally against, and which, it turned out, his own sorry story shows to be completely untrue."

'A one-off hybrid'

Mark Borkowski, founder of PR agency Borkowski.do, said Clifford was "not what we would call a PR man", commenting: "He was a one-off hybrid; a product of the time. He was part journalist, part news agency, part deal broker, part publicist."

He went on to say: "His like will never be seen again in any shape or form because of how the media has been degenerated, [with] the rise of social where people can people can out an opinion very quickly. You’ve got the waning of tabloid media, therefore you don’t have the kind of money that the tabloids or TV would pay for a story any longer.

"It’s certainly the end, I think, of that exploitative tabloid era. Everybody is acutely aware of celebrity and the toxicity of celebrity but there’s never going to be the kind of money that Max plundered in this age when there isn’t any money around, when readership is not in the millions as it used to be."

Borkowski said he knew that "a lot of people didn’t like dealing with Max Clifford", saying many found him "odd and strange" but felt they had to do so because he offered strong stories.

"He knew how to keep a story running because every day it ran he made more money for his client and for himself. And I think you’ll find history will also tell you that he made the most money ultimately and that’s why he fell out with lots of people because they never received the money they were due," Borkowski said, going on to suggest his work was an "early dawning of fake news", notably as the architect of the famous tabloid headline: 'Freddie Star Ate My Hamster'.

'Fabricated' clients

Gary Farrow, chair of entertainment PR agency The Corporation, also accused Clifford of fakery, claiming he had "totally" fabricated claims about working with certain legendary figures such as Muhammed Ali and Frank Sinatra.

And he was scathing in his assessment of Clifford, saying: "He was never a PR man, he was just a professional hitman. He wasn't a PR and he wasn't a man.

"A PR takes an artists, nurtures them, loves them, develops them - it's an art. He didn't know how to do that."

Part of PR's PR problem

Philip Young, a senior lecturer in PR at Birmingham City University, said: "PR is a much misunderstood industry and, for many years, part of the problem was that its most prominent practitioner was better described as a ‘publicist’."

Young went on to say: "Clifford was a fantasist who had little regard for the truth. Facts meant nothing to him, not least when engineering the infamous 'Freddie Starr ate my hamster' headline of 1986. Clifford wanted publicity, The Sun wanted to sell papers, and no-one was troubled too much about what really happened to a small mammal."

Writing in the Guardian on how Clifford "rewrote the rules of PR", Simon Hattenstone said: "I didn’t deal with him often as a journalist, but when I did, I enjoyed it. He understood journalism better than any PR I’ve worked with. He was, of course, also a master manipulator."

Read next: Clifford ordered by High Court to pay £5,000 over Paul Burrell leak

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