Profile: Murray Harkin, managing director, EP

Five years have passed since Murray Harkin became one of the best-known PR men in Britain - for all the wrong reasons.

Harkin gained notoriety after he,and his rather more famous business partner at RJH PR, Sophie Wessex, were duped by the News of the World's investigations editor Mazher Mahmood, better known as the fake sheikh.

Mahmood's story resulted from a tip-off that Wessex was exploiting her royal status for commercial gain. He posed as a rich potential client, and quizzed the pair in a series of interviews: Wessex made some unfortunate comments about powerful people, and when Mahmood asked Harkin about drugs and clubs, he admitted to taking cocaine. It was also reported that he offered to source rent-boys for the ‘sheikh' - something Harkin denies.

Harkin now wants to move on from the fiasco.  Fresh from relaunching consultancy EP (which stands for Entertainment People), Harkin is charming and looks younger than his 41 years. He is very talkative - perhaps surprisingly so for a man whose loose tongue got him into deep trouble.

Looking back, he only feels anger, he says, for an employee who he believes broke his trust and went to Max Clifford with the ‘sheikh' story: ‘If I saw him I would probably smack him.' And he no longer speaks to Wessex herself.

When he does talk about the sting, Harkin seems less sure of himself, fiddling with his coffee cup, his hands trembling at times.

The fallout was clearly devastating: ‘It went mad. There were photographers outside my house for months
and months. It was horrible and relentless. I'd get phonecalls all through the night.'

He quit RJH (which never recovered from the NoTW exposé, and recently closed) and left the country. ‘It was a mistake to naïvely think it was going to go away. I was hunted around the world. No one knew how to deal with me. It was like someone had died. You know, I was this poor man - I was unemployable and I certainly didn't have the strength or confidence to go into business myself.'

He admits: ‘It took me many years to stop shaking every time I picked up a newspaper, or stop looking over my shoulder.'

With hindsight, he says: ‘I think I probably could have ridden it out, but I chose a strategy that was really stupid, which was to not say anything and hope it would go away. But it didn't.'

At EP he is trying to make capital from the experience. Part of the consultancy's offering is a ‘caretaking' service for people who suddenly find themselves at the mercy of the tabloid press.

Harkin talks with confidence and at length about his career pre-Sophiegate - which included high-profile campaigns such as the launch of Kiss radio, and personal PR for Anne Diamond and Sam Fox.

He is proud of those achievements. ‘EP had a considerable amount of money,' he recalls. ‘I mean we were very, very, very cash rich.'

Post-‘sheikh', Harkin went to study in Sydney, Australia, for a year, before returning to the UK to take a job at Brighter PR, which he says was ‘the best thing I ever did. Before that I was a mess. It gave me my confidence back'.

Brighter Group MD Steve Dunne says: ‘What Murray brought to the table far exceeded all the baggage. He has a rare talent for finding exactly the right celebrity to fit the right brand, has an impressive list of contacts and is a very imaginative guy.'

Harkin certainly seems eager to please. Although he talks passionately about his ‘issues' with trust, entrapment and UK privacy laws, he remains affable throughout PRWeek's interview, even laughing at his misfortune.

Now he hopes to ensure EP clients learn from his mistakes. What's more, he says, his ambition is to win a PRWeek Award ‘and to take EP back to where it was - not the biggest agency, but one that does great work'.

‘I'm not doing any more interviews after this,' he later says, adding: ‘The fake sheikh can be rested now.'

You can only hope that he is right.

CV - Murray Harkin

2006 Managing director, EP

2005 Associate director, Brighter PR 

2003 Director, The TFA Group

1996 Managing director, RJH PR

1992 Director, EP

1990 Account manager, RJH PR 

1987 Account executive, Roger Haywood Associates

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