Did you hear the one about the actor who has an appetite for interval quickies? We all love hearing a salacious tale, but what happens when this gossip is about your client, and is spread on messageboards and mailouts that reach a highly influential audience?
Gossip sites such as Popbitch and Holy Moly have readerships of 360,000 and 185,000 respectively for their weekly emails, and have beaten the mainstream press to a range of high-profile stories.
Popbitch published the first allegations of David Beckham’s infidelities 18 months before the News of the World splashed with Rebecca Loos, while Holy Moly! broke the story that the BBC’s Mark Thompson had bitten an employee at work.
In the face of such insider knowledge, is there anything PROs can do?
Some publicists claim to be unconcerned about stories appearing. They emphasise the entertaining nature of the mailouts and say they would not be aggressive towards the sites unless something particularly outrageous was printed.
But in those situations, PROs will reach for the telephone number of their lawyer - as in the case of The Outside Organisation forcing Popbitch to remove damaging allegations about the Spice Girls in 2000, and Holy Moly’s believed four-figure payout to former Eastender Chris Parker last year.
Power of scandal
James Herring, co-founder of Taylor Herring warns against complacency.
‘Anybody who underestimates the power of these sites needs their heads looking at,’ he argues, ‘Innocent gossip quickly turns into tabloid fodder and the speed of the sites means you have minutes to get your act together.’
He continues: ‘These sites are the key to the entertainment industry in the future. If you look at the impact that they’ve had in America, with sites like tmz.com and perezhilton.com, they have become mainstream. To those who are absolutely terrified by these sites, I’d say to just get over it and go out and make contact.’
The concern over stories migrating into the press lies behind a litigious treatment of a gossip site story.
‘It’s much more serious if a story appears in The Sun or The Mirror,’ says Hackford Jones co-founder and director Simon Jones.
‘It is paramount to have good relationships with tabloid journalists – 90 per cent of the time they will call us to get the celebrity’s take on [a gossip site] story.’
The Outside Organisation’s head of press Stuart Bell says that he looks forward to the gossip mailouts. But he admits to a concern about how the sites get their information. Other PROs express worries about the extent to which the site owners check tips before running them.
Camilla Wright, who founded Popbitch with Neil Stevenson back in January 2000 and now runs the site, admits that some stories do come from anonymous sources, although most, she says, ‘come from fairly trusted and known people.’
Wright has a group of around 250 regular contributors. ‘Where possible I do try and catch up with some really great associates such as Adam Curtis, Drew Pierce, LA based writer and scriptwriter Jane Bussman, Fox TV presenter Greg Gutfield and some other journalists and music industry figures I don’t think I’ll name,’ she continues.
The founder of Holy Moly, who managed to remain anonymous even to PRWeek, takes a similar approach.
‘There’s me, a couple of writers, industry insiders and my major moles. It’s been going for four or five years so I have a pretty decent rolodex of sources,’ he says.
When asked how they verify stories, both he and Wright agree it is down to the trustworthiness of the source itself. Tips coming from ‘trusted’ sources might make it straight onto one of the weekly emails without any checks.
Wright says that she has little contact with PROs.
‘It’s pretty pointless calling a PR up to check,’ says Mr Holy Moly. ‘They are never going to go out on a limb and admit anything, that’s their job. I have, however, built up a handful of PR relationships where I can check out if a story is likely.’
The editorial checking process is the main difference in dealing with the tabloid gossip columns and the online gossip sites.
‘The difference is if a tabloid journalist gets sniff of a story, they will probably call you up to check,’ says Borkowski PR founder Mark Borkowski. ‘These sites generally don’t – I guess they have less to lose legally.’
Despite the sites’ desire to steer clear of the influence of the PR world, there are two occasions where contact is welcome. Mr Holy Moly reveals he is open to PROs contacting him with competition prizes: ‘I have received great prizes for competitions – DVDs, tickets, even holidays.’
And some PROs have managed to crack the tight band of gossip site sources, whether for seeding upcoming entertainment projects, or for more discreet placing of stories about their clients.
James Herring says that he has an ongoing relationship with Holy Moly. ‘We’ve used Holy Moly for various different things – placement of clips, we send it review tapes of TV shows, and we try and keep it in the loop with launches and press releases,’ says Herring.
‘We’ve tried to make it our business to know the people there and have fairly regular contact with them.’
Both Bell and Borkowski also say that some of their staffers maintain contact with some of the website’s contributors.
But despite their influence, some PROs take a relaxed approach to the sites. ‘These sites act as a litmus test as to who’s popular and who’s not,’ argues Nick Ede, director of Eden CanCan. ‘If they’re talking about my clients, then I’m happy about it.’
Borkowski proffers one last piece of advice for those hounded by Holy Moly And Popbitch: ‘Choose your clients carefully, especially in the personal arena. If your client is behaving badly then you can’t be expected to lie for them.
At the end of the day, this is the just the price of fame.’