2003: The year in review

In politics, showbiz and the City, it's been an eventful year for PR. Joe Lepper looks back

2003: The year in review

For the PR industry, 2003 may arguably be remembered as the year spin died. This was the year Alastair Campbell, the Government's director of communications and strategy and, for many, the prototype of a spin doctor, left the profession. His departure also marked the end of an era for the Government's communications. A new structure has since been announced with the aim of curbing the power of those following in Campbell's footsteps.

It was also a year in which PROs were being taken far more seriously by a host of clients and organisations, some successfully and some not so.

In showbusiness, the PR team appointed by TV presenter John Leslie did a creditable job in difficult circumstances, while those handling the reputation of David Blaine and his encounter with a cynical British public arguably fared less well.

For Prince Charles, it was the year when he realised the true value of having his former PR man, Mark Bolland, on his team as Sir Michael Peat's attempts to salvage the heir to the throne's reputation fanned, rather than dampened, the flames.

Those involved in football, in particular the Football Association, also had to take PR more seriously as they encountered their worst year yet in terms of scandals.

And in financial PR, already benefitting from a flurry of activity surrounding the future of supermarket chain Safeway and the long-awaited Yell float, investor relations was being looked at far more seriously as GlaxoSmithKline shareholders took the City by surprise when they voted against its chief executive's pay scheme.

But the story that dominated the year, and one that looks set to carry on into 2004, was the war in Iraq. For the PR industry the war raised some crucial issues, from accusations that media coverage presented too sanitised an image of war to the fall out from the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly and accusations of sexing up documents.

PRWeek takes a look back over the last 12 months at the major issues, the highlights and the lowlights for the PR industry.


The year started well for the City PR sector, as the major supermarkets both formally and informally began their battle for control of Safeway.

Those to benefit in the long, drawn-out battle, which was ongoing as PRWeek went to press, included Citigate Dewe Rogerson, advisers to Safeway's preferred bidder Wm Morrison, Wal Mart's advisers Bell Pottinger Financial, Tesco's advisers The Maitland Consultancy, Sainsbury's agency Finsbury, and Brunswick, the firm working for Safeway itself.

The story ended up dominating much of the year's business coverage, as the Competition Commission and the green lobby also became involved.

Meanwhile, January ended badly for London Underground (LU), following a train derailment on the Central Line at Chancery Lane. The incident, which left 32 people injured, sparked a renewed media onslaught on the state of the Tube.

The London Assembly, Westminster City Council and the capital's businesses, upset by weeks of disruption to the service, also joined in the criticism.

Within two months, LU's in-house PR team had hired external advisers Bite Communications in an attempt to improve the battered reputation of the service.


With bated breath, London Mayor Ken Livingstone waited to see if

his experiment of introducing a congestion charge in the capital would be a success.

Despite massive negative publicity from, among others, the Evening Standard and Metro, in the lead up to introduction, the mayor's PR team, including Fishburn Hedges, needn't have worried.

Headlines predicting gridlock, shrewdly fuelled by pessimistic comments made by Livingstone himself, ended up being refreshingly inaccurate as those in the centre of London got used to the unusual sight of free-flowing traffic.

The Government's director of communications Alastair Campbell launched a personal media campaign to promote his London Marathon attempt to raise funds for Leukaemia Research. His decision to raise his profile in such a way increased speculation that he would step down.

Further coverage of political spin came as the Government set up an independent review team, chaired by Guardian Media Group chairman Bob Phillis, to look into the issue.

Mecca-Cola, a French-based soft drink, launched to cash in on growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, as the US continues its confrontational stance in Iraq. Tawfik Mathlouthi, the French entrepreneur who created the product, was quoted as saying the drink was about combating 'America's imperialism and Zionism'.


US and UK forces led the anticipated assault on Iraq aimed at toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. On 20 March, the first American missiles hit Baghdad, and US and British forces enter the country from the south.

The conflict rapidly became one of the most media-managed of all time, with reporters embedded with units as a matter of routine. The US and UK governments argued this showed a willingness to be open about their conduct, while critics said it presented a sanitised picture of war.

PROs across all sectors were among the most cynical. In a survey of more than 400 PR professionals, not one considered the Bush administration's PR campaign as credible, and more than a third said the US Government's PR tactics were not in line with their ethical standards.

Back in the UK, around 200,000 people marched at a Stop the War Coalition event in London to protest against the invasion. Thousands of others march at events across the UK.

APRIL The invasion of Iraq drew to a close as US forces advanced into central Baghdad and British troops took a number of southern areas, including Basra. One of the most potent media images is that of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in Baghdad on 9 April.

On the domestic front, Cadbury Trebor Basset came under criticism for a campaign encouraging children to buy chocolate to raise funds for school sports equipment. British Dietary Association PRO Dr Wendy Doyle told PRWeek that the campaign was 'misguided'.

April was also Top 150 month. Six of the world's largest marketing services groups did not feature in this year's league. PR subsidiaries of Grey, Havas, Interpublic, Omnicom, Publicis and WPP refused to take part, citing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a piece of US legislation affecting disclosure of financial information. Speaking to PRWeek, PRCA chair Graham Lancaster said: 'This seems to be an unwitting consequence of a well-intended act that denies firms access to crucial industry data.'

The biggest showbusiness story of the month was the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? fraud case, in which contestant on the ITV1 show Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and another man, Tecwen Whittock were found guilty of cheating. ITV scores a PR success by showing a documentary soon after that attracted an audience of 17m.

MAY GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) became the first British blue-chip company to have an executive pay scheme rejected by its shareholders. Following a massive PR campaign by, among others, the Association of British Insurers and union Amicus, the shareholders rejected the pay package being awarded to CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier, which would have netted him a £22m payout should he lose his job.

As a result, the issue of 'fat cat' pay dominated coverage in the business media throughout the month. GSK itself changed City PR firms, replacing Financial Dynamics with The Maitland Consultancy, and all major companies were forced to review how they communicate with shareholders.

Government spin once again took centre stage when Radio Four's Today programme journalist Andrew Gilligan claimed a senior source had accused Alastair Campbell of 'sexing up' the Government's dossier on Iraq.

And International Development Secretary Clare Short, one of politics's most vociferous opponents of media manipulation, resigned her Cabinet post, delivering a broadside against Tony Blair in the process. Speaking in the House of Commons, she said the Prime Minister was 'increasingly obsessed with his place in history'.


The silly season started early this year, with speculation about the future of Manchester United midfielder David Beckham leaping from the back to the front pages. The England football team captain eventually announced he was to move to Real Madrid, prompting at least one national newspaper to appoint a dedicated David Beckham correspondent in the Spanish capital.

To the surprise of the media, Liverpool, and not a joint bid by Newcastle and Gateshead, was named European City of Culture for 2008.

The decision, according to Liverpool bid leader Sir Bob Scott, will create an estimated 14,000 jobs, generate £2bn extra investment and bring 1.7 million additional visitors to the city. It also proved a victory for Liverpool's local-level PR tactics, and a defeat for bookies' favourite Newcastle and Gateshead's more global approach, which had involved the courting of regional, national and international journalists, and even being named one of the eight most creative cities in the world by Newsweek International.

The UK PR industry mourned the death of James Maxwell after a short illness.

Maxwell was co-founder of Scope Communications and a former European CEO of Ketchum.


Colleen Harris announced she was to quit her role as press secretary to the Prince of Wales after three years in the role. Harris told PRWeek she was leaving to spend more time with her family. She added that 'the hours here are quite punishing'.

Meanwhile, the City saw its biggest float since Friends Provident in 2001 as Yell went public. The directories business, with a value of £2bn, had delayed a float the previous year citing poor market conditions. City PR experts estimated that around £30m in consultancy fees are up for grabs.

Football once again took front-page billing when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich announced his £140m takeover of Chelsea Football Club and Chelsea Village. Citigate Dewe Rogerson was called in by Abramovich's UK firm Millhouse Capital to handle financial PR.

On the crisis PR front, Heathrow was brought to a standstill after British Airways staff walked out over the introduction of swipe cards. Following these wildcat strikes, the airline's head of corporate comms Iain Burns admited to PRWeek that 'there are lessons to be learned in the way BA communicates'.

TV presenter John Leslie saw charges of indecent assault against him dropped. Leslie's PR adviser James Herring later revealed to PRWeek that his client had gone against his advice in signing a £550,000 exclusive deal with Express Newspapers. Herring had recommended a non-exclusive interview and a two month cooling-off period.


Government PROs, including Alastair Campbell, and BBC journalists, including Andrew Gilligan, were called to give evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, which was established following the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly.

At the inquiry, Campbell denied he had sexed up the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons programme. Other PROs called to give evidence included the Prime Minister's official spokesman Tom Kelly, who was criticised for referring to Dr Kelly as a 'Walter Mitty figure'.

Just days after giving evidence, Campbell announced his resignation in a move that had been predicted all year by many in PR, politics and the media. In a statement, he said he planned to concentrate on writing, broadcasting and public appearances.

Campbell added that leaving the Government was something he had considered for some time and had nothing to do with the Hutton Inquiry.

On August Bank Holiday weekend, British Telecom's monopoly on directory enquiries services was scrapped along with its 192 number. A raft of firms, including BT, mounted a PR and advertising blitz to grab a share of the market. One firm, The Number, with its 118-118 brand, emerged as the market leader in following weeks, thanks in part to its memorable moustachioed runners used in the campaign, the PR side of which is handled by Brazil.


The Government finally admited to the worst kept secret in PR: that Alastair Campbell was to be replaced by former Labour comms director turned Good Relations Political Communications managing director David Hill.

However, Hill's role does not carry the same authority as Campbell's, as the Government accepted recommendations by the Phillis review team.

This called for curbs on the executive power of Hill's post, the appointment of a permanent secretary with responsibility for communications and, unexpectedly, the axing of the post of Government Information and Communications Service director general, held by Civil Service veteran Mike Granatt.

US illusionist David Blaine began his 44-day fast in a Perspex box above the Thames. The stunt went awry, however, when Blaine was confronted with a cynical British public, who turned up in their hundreds to ridicule him. Some pelted his box with eggs and golf balls, one man cooked a barbeque below him, and a number of women simply bared their breasts. New York-based publicity firm PMK was reported to be unhappy ith the way the PR campaign surrounding the stunt was going and considered hiring in further assistance. In a PRWeek online poll, 68 per cent of voters said Blaine's reputation was being diminished as a result of the stunt.


After nearly two decades of luxury passenger travel, Concorde made its final flight. The supersonic service never recovered from the Air France crash outside Paris three years ago and the after-effects of September 11. Unlike its last years, Concorde's final send-off went well. With publicity handled by Jackie Cooper PR, coverage of its last landing on BBC2 achieved the highest audience share for any daytime programme that day.

Meanwhile, the Royal Mail was beset by wildcat strikes across the country, crippling its service and costing the firm millions of pounds. The events came just weeks after the group announced the hiring of Sunday Telegraph city editor Mary Fagan as corporate affairs director.

The image of football hit rock bottom with several scandals making the headlines. A number of Premiership players were accused of an alleged gang rape, and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand failed to attend a drugs test.

Ferdinand's subsequent exclusion by the Football Association for the Euro 2004 qualifier with Turkey left relations between the body and players, including media darling David Beckham, in tatters. FA marketing and communications director Paul Barber admitted to PRWeek that this had been a, 'very, very difficult time' for football.

At the PRWeek Awards, Colonel Tim Collins was awarded the title of Communicator of the Year for his rousing speech to his troops during the conflict in Iraq. Having dominated the business pages for most of the year, Safeway won Private Sector Department of the Year and The Red Consultancy was the first agency to win Consultancy of the Year for a third time.


The FA took drastic action after the cavalcade of negative publicity and, to the surprise of many in the media, ousted Paul Barber, replacing him with journalist Colin Gibson.

Elsewhere in football, Manchester United comms chief Paddy Harverson also announced he was leaving the sport, but it's a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for him: his new role is as Prince Charles's press secretary.

Harverson's appointment came as royal scandals dominated the headlines this month. Former royal butler Paul Burrell's book about Princess Diana renewed media scrutiny of royals, as did allegations surrounding Prince Charles being caught in a compromising position. Attempts by the Prince's private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, to quash the allegations with a vociferous public rebuttal ended up generating even more media interest.

Meanwhile, the heir to the throne's former PR man Mark Bolland raised eyebrows within the industry by writing in a News of the World article that he was once asked if the Prince was bisexual. He denies the article was 'unhelpful'.

And as Bolland found himself embroiled once again in royal matters his partner, Press Complaints Commission director Guy Black, became involved with another British institution under fire, the Conservative Party. Newly appointed leader Tory Michael Howard announced a streamlined party PR operation, with Black heading media relations and O2 marketer Will Harris taking the newly created role of marketing director.

Elsewhere, P&O did a creditable job in minimising damage to its reputation after hundreds of passengers aboard the Aurora cruise ship were taken ill with a stomach virus. Just 20 people called to cancel tickets for cruises following the events.

England finally stormed to victory in a tense final against Australia in the Rugby World Cup. Fly half Jonny Wilkinson, who scored the winning drop goal in the final minute of extra time, was declared a national hero, and the Rugby Football Union planned to bolster coverage of the rugby stars in the lifestyle press to boost the sport's appeal.


The month kicked off with World Aids Day, which saw Aids campaigners welcoming the Government's pledge to increase funding for treatment of the disease, and guerilla stunts being staged in Trafalgar Square to promote sex education.

Media speculation grew over the future of the Telegraph Group, following the resignation of its chief executive and major shareholder Lord Black.

Hollinger International drafted in Bell Pottinger Communications to quell the media frenzy.

Meanwhile, fresh data from AG Knowledge's PR Economic Barometer (see p9) reveals agency bosses are confident year-end profits will be greater than last year and the number of employees is set to increase in the next 12 months.

After a turbulent 12 months for the industry, such optimism will come as a welcome relief.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in