Analysis: Coming clean is the way to come out

Simon Hughes' revelations have showed that sexual preference can still make headlines, particularly if the media feel they have been misled. Hannah Marriott asks how PR advisers can help clients out of the closet

It has not been an easy few days for Liberal Democrat leadership contender Simon Hughes - or his party. Last Thursday he confirmed to The Sun ongoing rumours that he is gay. The story came just days after The News of The World's revelations about former leadership challenger Mark Oaten's relationship a with a male prostitute. Oaten subsequently dropped out of the race, but Hughes has vowed to continue.

The case of Oaten -who is married with two children - was clearly going to make the tabloids salivate. But the fact that Hughes, a single man with no dependents, made front-page news shows that politicians need to be honest with the public about their sexuality at the outset.

Double standards
Hughes used the slogan 'the straight choice' to beat gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for his Bermondsey seat in 1983 - a tactic that is now coming back to haunt him. And last week's story was clearly going to be front-page news, given the context of the party's travails, from Charles Kennedy's resignation to the Oaten scandal.

Publicist Max Clifford says: 'This is a rare example of honesty being the best policy. But both Oaten and Hughes lied - pretending to be something they weren't. I make sure that secretly gay clients are never seen as being homophobic, or lecturing against being gay.'

Coming out does not necessarily have to make the front pages. Gay Times editor Vicky Powell says: 'There are a dozen openly gay MPs now - there were four of them on the dancefloor at our most recent party. MPs coming out isn't really news - I don't think people are shocked. Celebrities coming out probably cause more of a stir.'

And some people would never want to be open about their sexuality, fearing prejudice from friends, family or colleagues. Footballers, for example, find it particularly difficult.

'Football is such a homophobic game - it's probably the last remaining arena where someone coming out would really be a shock,' says Powell. 'Only one top-level British footballer [Justin Fashanu] has ever come out, and his life was made hell.'

But with the right contacts and planning, stories can have a positive effect. The Outside Organisation CEO Alan Edwards managed the media when Boyzone's Stephen Gately and Westlife's Mark Feehily revealed they were gay, in 1999 and 2005 respectively. By co-operating with The Sun, Edwards kept control of the story for his clients - the pictures and wording - and the results were largely positive (see box).

Stage management
When pop singer Will Young came out in The Sun in 2002, just after winning TV talent contest Pop Idol, Henry's House MD Julian Henry managed the media coverage. The story was suppressed during the contest, despite Young's sexuality being known by friends and family.

The Sun was given the exclusive, and carried the story positively - but only after Young had won. Four years on Young is arguably the most successful singer to have been spawned by a TV talent show.

How Hughes must now be wishing his own coming out could have been so smoothly handled.

Alan Edwards, CEO, The Outside Organisation

'In both Stephen Gately and Mark Feehily's cases there had been rumours circulating in the media for some time, and we were often questioned about their sexuality.

'The Sun brought the story to our attention, and we felt it was best to confront and confirm it and make sure it was dealt with fairly and accurately.

'If we had tried to conceal things the story would have rumbled on as gossip, finally breaking somewhere without our influence on the outcome or, even worse, with us not finding out until hours before publication. A story like this might also receive much harsher treatment from the media if they felt they had been misled.

'The final decision was left to Mark and Stephen, who chose how they wanted the story to appear. The Sun read the stories back to us over the phone and we agreed on the headline, wording and pictures.

'We took enormous time and trouble to ensure the wording was just right, and that there were no derogatory headlines or innuendos. In both instances The Sun handled it with great sensitivity.

'Our belief was that Stephen and Mark made the right decisions, and that the resulting coverage did not damage their careers - arguably, the effect was positive. Mark and Stephen were pleased to get on with their lives as usual after the publicity died down, which it did quickly, especially in Mark's case.'

Max Clifford, Max Clifford Associates

'I have worked with plenty of major stars who are gay or bisexual but we have hidden it. Although society is increasingly tolerant, there are some people whose careers would be damaged if the public knew - so we create a false image. That could mean having a gay star marry a beautiful woman, or arranging kiss-and-tells.

'The first thing I tell clients is: "If I don't know more about you than anyone else - your friends, your family, your lover - I can't protect you." So they tend to be open with me. Stars like to take risks, and you have to know what they're likely to do, so you can stage-manage it.

'If the papers have irrefutable evidence, I'll give them a better story. If an editor came to me with a rentboy selling his story, I'd provide a stunning woman and make it look like a threesome, which is far easier for homophobic readers to handle - especially because I'll make sure there are stunning pictures with it.

'It's useful to have very close working relationships with major editors. Lots of my clients have done other promotions for them, so they think: "Will I lose more than I gain by running this story?"

'So far, none of my clients has been outed - but it's been a 40-year battle, and in the past ten years, as the media have become more intrusive, it's become much harder work. But that's part of the fascination.'

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