A year of highs and lows

It has been a rollercoaster of a year, from economic collapse and reputation meltdowns to glory for Team GB and a new US president. Alex Black reports

Obama: US election victory in 2008
Obama: US election victory in 2008

The year 2008 will go down as the year the wheels came off the global economy, but the PR industry so far has refused to panic. Caution abounds, with ‘belt tightening’ and ‘trimming’ the watchwords, but organisations need their reputations managed by in-house PROs and agencies more carefully than ever.

But there was more to 2008 than the credit crunch. London elected a new mayor in Boris Johnson, a man previously dismissed as a bumbling publicity seeker. Team GB won 47 medals at the Beijing Olympics, 19 of them gold, and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 temporarily became a byword for everything that is wrong with transport in Britain.

The biggest political story of the year was the US electing to end the Republican Party’s grip on the presidency. The world now waits to see what a US led by Barack Obama will look like.

People moves: Who got new jobs


Stephen Carter leaves his post as CEO of Brunswick to join Number 10 as Gordon Brown’s chief of strategy (January). Just nine months later (October) he moves to become minister for comms, technology and broadcasting and receives a peerage.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport communications director Paddy Feeny moves to the newly created Department of Energy and Climate Change (October).

Matt Tee, chief executive of NHS Direct, is appointed as the Cabinet Office’s permanent secretary for government communications, finally replacing Howell James (November).


David Cracknell resigns as chairman of FD-LLM to set up on his own, having joined amid much fanfare (May).

Ex BBC-man Guto Harri makes a shock departure from Fleishman-Hillard after less than three months, to become new London mayor Boris Johnson’s communications chief (May).

Nick Wiszowaty, one of Freud Communications’ highest-ranked staff members, announces he is to stand down after 21 years (August).


Stuart Handley, August.One founder and former Hill & Knowlton corporate comms MD, joins Dell as EMEA director of communications to oversee WPP’s Da Vinci project (February).

The Body Shop global comms director Bill Eyres, known for his ethical credentials, joins O2 as head of corporate responsibility, environment and sustainability (July).

Google appoints Newsnight editor Peter Barron as head of communications and public affairs for the UK, replacing DJ Collins (July).

Behind the News: The top five stories with PR implications…

Heathrow Terminal 5 opening debacle

On 27 March, BA opened its new £4.5bn fifth terminal at Heathrow. Within hours, chaos had unfolded.

The press tore BA to shreds, especially after BBC reporter Tom Symonds had a door slammed in his face by a BA PRO. It took six months for comms boss Julia Simpson and her team to rebuild the terminal’s reputation.

Prince Harry returns from a ten-week tour of Afghanistan

A report on US site The Drudge Report at the end of March blew open what was described as the largest media blackout the Ministry of Defence had ever imposed. MoD director of news James Shelley and Army PR assistant director Ben Bathurst spent six months negotiating a deal with the press to keep
the story of Prince Harry’s deployment secret before he left, and another three while he was in Afghanistan.

‘Hello? Gordon here. I’m calling about your letter...’

In May PRWeek revealed how badly Number 10’s comms strategy had gone awry when it broke the story of Downing Street chief of strategy Stephen Carter’s latest comms offensive: getting the PM to cold-call members of the public who have written him letters. Unfortunately, early-bird Gordon Brown called one lucky correspondent at 6am, leading to him being ridiculed as ‘out of touch’ with ordinary voters.

‘Manuelgate’ – Ross and Brand make obscene phone calls

When Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left obscene messages on Andrew Sachs’ voicemail in October, it unleashed a devastating backlash against the BBC. Celeb PRO Gary Farrow worked behind the scenes on behalf of Ross but the BBC’s comms team was criticised for dragging its heels over issuing an apology.

The tragic case of ‘Baby P’ exposes Haringey Council

Despite being briefed on the case of Baby P months earlier, Haringey’s comms team was ill-prepared for the wave of public fury in November when the case became public. Allowing director of children’s services Sharon Shoesmith to tell TV cameras that her team couldn’t ‘prevent parents from killing their children’ showed that little had been learned from the Victoria Climbié case five years ago.

Account moves: The biggest wins and losses

Virgin Media, the new TV, mobile, broadband and phone brand formed out of Virgin’s merger with NTL, hires Frank PR. Virgin Mobile takes on Borkowski and Eulogy.

Sensing 2008 could be his breakthrough year, Andy Murray brings in Stuart Higgins Communications.

Finnish phone giant Nokia replaces The Red Consultancy with GolinHarris on its £300,000 global comms brief.

HP drops Porter Novelli from its EMEA account, hiring Edelman instead.

Christian Aid calls in Shine for its Ctrl+Alt+Shift sub-brand, which aims to ‘combat youth apathy’.

The Department of Health signs up six agencies including Band & Brown and Freud Communications to its roster.

Sony UK parts company
with Kazoo after four years, switching to a Borkowski-led team supported by Inferno PR.

British Airways parts company with Porter Novelli and takes its £500,000-a-year account in house.

After Indian auto firm Tata Motors buys up Jaguar Land Rover, Portland PR is briefed to position the firm as a ‘blue-chip UK corporate’.

Credit crunch hits industry: How belts started to tighten

In January, Huntsworth’s Lord Chadlington sounded the first notable warning when he told PRWeek ‘2008 is going to be tough’. The industry was still riding high on the riches of 2007 though, and a PRCA Leaders’ Panel report in February found that 65 per cent of senior agency PROs believed there would be ‘no recession in 2008’.

Further optimism came in March from the strong results posted by WPP and Interpublic, while Chime Communications, Havas and Huntsworth reported on an ‘outstanding 2007’.

‘I can’t recall a time when PR has been as strong,’ said WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, whose comments were echoed by Chime’s Lord Bell.

Indeed, Havas was able to shell out £12m for Cake Group in April, snapping up one of the UK’s top independent consumer PR agencies.

But alarm bells started to ring in the industry in July, when listed UK marcoms groups started to see their share prices slide. Chime posted a 20 per cent half-year profit increase, but that couldn’t stop its share price dropping by 50 per cent from September 2007 to 8 July. Investors had started to tar the PR industry with the same brush as the rest of the marcoms sector.

By October, no-one was under any illusion that the industry would avoid the global financial malaise.

PRWeek and Brands2Life’s comms directors’ survey found one-fifth of in-house teams were preparing to scale back agency support.

In November, Manchester-based Koan PR went bust, Waggener Edstrom announced it would make ten per cent of its UK staff redundant, and City giant FD revealed it was slashing its PA division.


The year's highs and lows...

15 January
Greenpeace protesters battle with Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean

8 February
Nick Davies brings out Flat Earth News

28 February
Exposure MD Mark Stringer leaves after boardroom split

13 March
Andy Murray hires Stuart Higgins Communications

4 April
Marcoms giant Havas buys consumer agency Cake for £12m

25 April
PRWeek’s Top 150 PR Consultancies shows huge growth

2 May
Boris Johnson elected mayor of London

19 June
Primark sacks three suppliers after Panorama finds Primark clothes being made in ‘slum workshops’

27 June
Bill Gates steps down from Microsoft

18 July
Government accused of u-turn on knife crime policy

1 August
Times editor James Harding publishes Alpha Dogs– the story of US lobbyist Sawyer Miller

8 August
Beijing Olympics begin after anti-China protests

19 September
Virgin Radio rebrands as Absolute

26 September
HBOS brings in Brunswick during takeover talks with Lloyds TSB

24 October
Blue Rubicon wins PRWeek’s Agency of the Year Award for the third year running

5 November
Barack Obama elected President of the USA

26 November
Terrorists launch assault on Mumbai leaving hundreds dead

3 December
Bank of England cuts interest rates to two per cent – a 57-year low

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