OPINION: Beware the dual-edged sword of stardom

One day last week a Cabinet minister resigned over a police investigation into his financial affairs. On the same day it was revealed that a rogue trader had fleeced an international bank of £3.7bn and police in the UK arrested a gang of Romanian immigrants flooding the streets with child thieves.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

The Sun, the world's biggest-selling daily newspaper, marked this seismic news day by devoting pages one, three and five to a lurid kiss-and-tell aimed at destroying the reputation of the England soccer team's left back Ashley Cole, as well as his marriage to pop singer Cheryl Tweedy.

It was the starkest indication yet for all of us who manage reputation that part of the tabloid agenda is a mission to destroy those reputations on which so much of the UK's celebrity culture is built.

The vicious personal exposes are based on hard-nosed commercial logic. The Sun's success is built on total empathy with its audience. Its executives will have reasoned that most of its eight million readers will have been more fascinated by a peculiarly sordid account of Cole's peccadillo than by the political ramifications of a Cabinet minister's downfall. They will argue that the scoop created headlines for The Sun itself.

They are right on both counts. By and large, a country gets the press it deserves. Or, put another way, press freedom enables the media - within the laws of libel and privacy - to give their readers what they want. And it is a peculiar part of the British psyche that we lap up the demolition of our heroes.

PROs have for a decade now made hay while the sun has shone brightly on celebrities. Brands have seized on celebrity endorsements. Clever media management has enabled stars and celebrities to build lucrative portfolios of commercial endorsements by leveraging their value against editorial coverage favourable to associated brands.

In doing so, stars and their PROs have helped fill acres of newspapers and glossy magazines. In return, the tabloids have seized a faux moral highground that they use to justify salacious exposes. They argue that celebrities are role models and therefore the media have a 'public interest' right to delve into private lives using, on occasions, entrapment and financial inducements. They also argue that if stars offer themselves to the media to promote commercial associations, then they are fair game for investigation and exposure. Both justifications could be considered shallow.

But they - and the timing of The Sun's Ashley Cole expose - are a warning to brands and individuals about the double-edged sword of stardom and celebrity association in the UK today.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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