It was an inauspicious, although profitable, start to a career that has seen him subsequently destroy a shady Tory fundraising scheme, set up two PRWeek ‘agencies to watch’, and tear apart the reputation of Martin Bashir.
Today, Elsen, 44, is sitting in the offices of his third start-up – the Byfield Consultancy – which is designed to take advantage of the forthcoming Legal Services Act. The act will free-up the legal profession, heralding multi-disciplinary firms, ‘supermarket lawyers’ and floated companies.
His PR career began with an elongated stint at the embattled British Rail, working on stories about ‘suicides, nine-hour train delays and cattle on the line’. The cattle stories garnered the greatest coverage.
A subsequent job with the Labour party, which was searching for a PRO in the Midlands, was secured in part due to that fact Elsen had been covertly briefing against Conservative railway privatisation plans.
Elsen recalls his first challenge as a Labour party press officer. ‘We had a slight lead in Birmingham, but the Tories were attacking our record,’ he says. ‘We turned it around to make it look like they were attacking Brummies themselves.’
In 1996 Elsen became deputy head of Labour’s Rebuttal and Attack Unit, based on a model used by Bill Clinton in Arkansas. It helped Labour to its huge landslide in the general election next year.
During that period Elsen also briefed a number of Conservatives who had switched allegiance. One told him about ‘The Premier Club’, where for £100k you could have a private dinner with John Major.
‘It’s extraordinary,’ says Elsen. ‘Sometimes people do the work for you.’ The scandal made front-page news. Elsen left soon after Labour’s election to focus on litigation PR at public affairs agency Ludgate Communications.
‘My workload went from being frenetic to being much calmer overnight,’ he says. ‘Moving to litigation PR seemed the right move because it too is highly polarised campaigning – a case of “we’re right and you’re wrong”.’
Litigation PR is the comms version of a boxing match in which one side of a legal dispute tries to discredit the other. For obvious reasons of contempt of court, it can only operate in civil cases. Now, Elsen heads his own agency dedicated to litigation PR and is a leading figure in the niche discipline.
‘You have to understand what works well with each audience,’ says Elsen. ‘When I worked on a breach of contract claim against the Prince of Brunei, the tabloids loved the allegations of prostitution and gambling, but broadsheets preferred the royal angle.’
Elsen talks with the aura of someone who knows he’s good at what he does. You get the impression he would back himself no matter what the opposition.
‘It’s always enjoyable when some agencies that don’t know what they’re doing or have no experience get involved,’ says Elsen, with some relish.
Perhaps Elsen’s most famous job was highlighting the Diana Memorial Fund’s legal bills when pursuing damages against his client Franklin Mint. The resulting furore went international.
As did using Martin Bashir’s journalistic techniques as evidence against him when working for pop star Michael Jackson a couple of years earlier.
‘I watched the Martin Bashir and Michael Jackson documentary and thought “Jackson’s blown it”,’ recalls Elsen. ‘Then I got a call from a contact saying “meet me in 20 minutes”. We were fortunate Jackson’s staff had filmed Bashir at work.’
Recordings of Bashir extolling the virtues of Jackson’s parenting technique, juxtaposed against the footage that actually aired, went some way to dampening the negative effects of the documentary.
When asked if there are clients with whom he would rather not work, Elsen says he does draw a line, but does not elaborate. He only says: ‘I trust the legal teams I work with.’
Man of his word
Former Ludgate colleague Richard Mollet, now head of public affairs at the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) says Elsen has an ‘impeccable’ understanding of how to interact with the media. Those who have come up against him suggest he is a fierce opponent who can always find an angle.
Maybe his window cleaning days in Watford made Elsen into a bit of a wide-boy and laid the foundations for his career?
‘I don’t think so. I was always entrepreneurial. Maybe it’s because my father is German. He came over here soon after the war and took a lot of stick. Yet he still built a good business. I got some stick for it too – maybe that made me a little hard-nosed.’
And then Elsen launches into a tale about how he turned Cantor Fitzgerald from a firm wronged by staff-stealing rival Icap, to a company that faced a series of sex scandal allegations as reported in some newspapers.
‘Cantor is only based over there,’ Elsen says, pointing out of his central London window. ‘I’m not sure they like me much.’
Elsen’s stories are rollicking good fun. One imagines that Cantor, like Martin Bashir and John Major, wishes he had stuck to window cleaning.
What was your biggest career break?
Joining the Labour Party’s media team was by far and away my biggest career break. Being at the centre of hard-fought political media battles required a robust approach and certainly wasn’t for the faint hearted – it prepared me well for what I do now. Many of the contacts I made then are still friends of mine.
What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Try to get as close to your contacts as you can. Look out for them and give them stories that aren’t necessarily anything to do with your clients. Remember that in ten years’ time some of them will be important players.
Who was your most notable mentor?
Stephen Lock. He introduced me to the concept of litigation PR, something that I credit him with creating in the UK. His ability to quickly distil down complex legal arguments into media friendly language without losing any of the potency is truly impressive.
What characteristics do you prize in new recruits?
I like recruits that are energetic and prepared to contribute ideas, even if they don’t necessarily work. Common sense is a very important attribute and rarer than you might think. Experience helps, but isn’t top of my list, as I like ‘can do’ people who are willing to learn.
Founder, Byfield Consultancy
Co-founder, Bell Yard
Director, Ludgate Communications Public Affairs
Deputy head, Rebuttal and Attack Unit, Labour Party