Gummer PR of The Realm

As Peter Gummer dons the ermine of a peer, his Lordship leaps energetically from PR into the political spotlight.

As Peter Gummer dons the ermine of a peer, his Lordship leaps

energetically from PR into the political spotlight.

Peter Gummer is ensconced on his sofa. A fire is burning in the grate.

He is taking yet another call congratulating him on his peerage. His

tone is modest and self deprecating. He beams.

Shandwick’s Grosvenor Street headquarters have a comfortable, clubbish

feel, and Gummer’s own room resembles a study. There is a desk, but he

prefers to conduct his business from one of the two sofas which bracket

the fireplace.

‘Do you want a whisky or something?’ he asks. It is 4.30 in the

afternoon. (Gummer himself rarely drinks.)

This is one of the things that he does. He observes. Had I accepted, he

would have been non-judgmental, in fact delighted to pour me a malt. But

he would have observed me quizzically, as if to say to himself, ‘so this

is the kind of person who drinks whisky in the afternoon’.

The same is true of his legendary breakfast meetings at the Connaught,

where he has been going daily for over 20 years. At these, he urges a

succession of guests on to kippers and other hearty fare, while he peers

at them over his tea and bran like an avuncular hawk.

His omnivorous curiosity is evidenced by his multiple jobs: as well as

chairing the world’s largest independent PR company, he continually pops

up on quangos, from the NHS Policy Board to the Arts Council.

‘What I find very interesting is change,’ he says. ‘I’ve got three

planks to my life. PR will continue to be absolutely vitally important.

Certainly for the next five years until I’m 60, I’d expect to go on

being very active in the business. I will also take a higher profile on

the political front, particularly when the election is done.’

On top of that, he has just taken over as chairman of the Royal Opera

House. It is fortunate then that his Lordship, as he officially becomes

this week, is one of those people for whom the phrase ‘in rude health’

was invented. He has an absurd amount of energy. ‘I sleep very little

and I wake up absolutely raring to go every morning,’ he says.

He was ‘extremely surprised’ but delighted, when the Prime Minister

offered him a peerage earlier this year. The official announcement,

which came at the height of the row over the Tories’ ‘demon eyes’

poster, caused uproar. Gummer was on holiday at the time.

He chuckles at Labour environment spokesman Frank Dobson’s description

of him and Lord Saatchi as ‘Lords of the Lies’ and the remark that ‘no

coronets and ermine will cover up their roles in dragging British

politics lower than the gutter’. He stands resolutely by the campaign

and is animated in his defence. ‘I’ll show you something extraordinary,’

he cries and rushes from the room, returning with a copy of the Mirror’s

Labour conference supplement which is plastered with references to the


‘That whole furore made the advertising terribly famous,’ he says.‘This

is now part of our culture. And to have an advertising campaign where

you spend this little money become part of our culture, where everybody

is talking about it, is an enormous success. I think the Labour Party

fell into completely the wrong position. By attacking it so vehemently

they just made it more famous.’

Part of the culture it may be, but research from Maiden Outdoor last

week revealed that it could still backfire on its creators. Although 72

per cent of respondents remembered the campaign, and 57 per cent

attributed it to the Tories, 64 per cent said they disliked it. And

although he staunchly holds the party line, one senses that Gummer is

less comfortable with the emphasis on personalities in political


‘There is an increasingly presidential style of evaluation about which

party should be in power,’ he says. ‘But unlike America we don’t have a

presidential system, we have a collegiate system based on a cabinet. The

question is not just which man or woman would be the best Prime

Minister, but what is the depth and quality of the management? I feel

terribly strongly that the cult of the personality undervalues the

quality of the general management.’

But he rejects the charge that spin doctors have taken over the

political agenda. ‘I’ve worked for the Tory Party for about 11 years,’

he says. ‘I’ve never made a single recommendation in that capacity about

any policy change. My job isn’t to do that, my job is to present policy

in the most effective way.

‘I certainly would say ‘if you go this route with this particular policy

the following communications fall-out will come. Now you must weigh up

whether or not it is worth it’. But I can’t make that judgment because

there are lots of other factors which are influencing the policy line.

And I think that’s the same in business.’

He does not, however, advise his elder brother, the Environment

secretary John Gummer, on PR matters.

The contrast between the two men is stark. To the outside observer, it

seems bizarre that one of the pre-eminent PR men of his generation

should have a sibling who appears so unslick at the business of

communication. But Gummer does not see any irony.

‘John is a conviction politician - he doesn’t do things he doesn’t

believe in. He is immensely passionate. Even if you disagree with him

you can’t get away from the passion that comes out of everything he

does. Some people find that a bit heady, a bit difficult to cope with. I

actually find it rather attractive.

‘That’s also why I have huge admiration for the Prime Minister because

he is a committed man, and I admire people who are committed. With

brother John [his image] has not been a subject we’ve discussed. We’ve

probably talked about it two or three times in our lives and certainly

not in the last ten or 15 years.’

Although he has been assiduous about patching himself into the political

and arts establishment, Gummer Junior has kept a lower profile outside

PR. ‘I’m very much against the cult of the personality. I’ve always

felt, although I did a lot of things wrong in the last 22 years, one of

the things I did right was to call the company Shandwick, and not Peter

Gummer and Associates. It’s meant I’ve been able to build a business and

work in relative obscurity.

But he recognises he will have to get used to the attention. ‘I’m going

to be very active in the Lords, I’m going to be very active in the Royal

Opera House and I will therefore have a much higher profile. But that

goes with the jobs. ’

He won’t have entered into these commitments lightly. Gummer is always

enormously well prepared and doesn’t like to be caught off guard.

Revealingly, he once told the Independent on Sunday that his ‘biggest

mistake’ had come in 1965 when he tried to give a 90-minute speech with

little or no preparation. The awfulness of the experience appears to

have coloured his entire outlook since then. He no longer busks


‘It isn’t something that naturally comes to me. I’ve always been

relatively nervous about public speaking, but I forced myself and taught

myself to do it. I work terribly hard at those things and therefore feel

more confident about it. I will do exactly the same thing in trying to

manage my own public profile.’

This attention to preparation and his dapper appearance give the

illusion of a man who is always in control. Doesn’t he ever let himself

go? For the first time in the interview, he seems slightly at a loss. He

casts around for some example of mild abandon to offset the impression

that he is staid. But the best he can come up with is that he and his

wife Lucy had been to see the new John Grisham movie the previous night.

‘As I get older I find I am not so good at spending time

unproductively,’ he admits. ‘But that’s mainly because I’ve got four

kids and I like to see them.’

In fact, Gummer has never exactly been known as the wild man of PR. He

is a model of probity. If this caution seems ingrained, it is perhaps

partly because he has had to demonstrate almost singlehandedly to a

sceptical City that PR folk can run sensible, well-managed and

profitable businesses. That he has done so, despite some desperately

rocky times during the recession, is his most impressive achievement.

‘It was terrible in 1991, but it was therapeutic, it was cathartic,’ he

confesses. ‘We made some gross errors but we got through them. We bloody

well aren’t making them again. We understand our business so well

because we’ve been through so much. I do believe in this thing about

steel, going through the fire and coming out the other side stronger.’

That steel can sometimes appear as ruthlessness. He is said to have a

ferocious temper when required, but more typically he is effortlessly


‘I don’t think I’m cold, but I’m very determined. You won’t find me

flinch from taking tough decisions. Nobody here, or at the Opera House,

is under any misapprehension that I will not take tough decisions.

Because that’s the only way you succeed in business. If we hadn’t done

it in 1991, we wouldn’t exist now.’

Although he is always controlled, he is, like his brother, passionate

about the things he believes in - namely Shandwick, the PR business, and

the arts.

‘I’ve always had to do something in the arts. I’ve listened to opera

probably every day of my life since I was 20. It is a vital part of my

life. This [the chairmanship] is the most wonderful opportunity. It

happens to be the most difficult time for the Opera House that one could

imagine. But it’s going to be terribly exciting and a very challenging


‘But whatever it is that drives me, I have a wonderful time. I don’t

feel you ever meet me and say to yourself: ‘he’s weighed down by all the

worries of these jobs.’’

He makes it sound as if he is simply following his whimsy. But knowing

his predilection for planning, it is tempting to believe that there is a

Heseltine-style master plan at work here. The business success, the time

diligently spent on high-profile quangos, the squeaky clean image, and

of course the political service, all appear to lead inexorably to a bid

for higher public office.

If he eases out of the business by the time he is 60 (and by then there

might another Tory government in power), perhaps there will be a higher

profile political job for him. He would enjoy it hugely. He enjoys

everything hugely. Another famous Gummer trait is that whenever you

telephone him and ask how things are, he always barks back hyper-

enthusiastically: ‘Terrific!’

He finds this observation hilarious, roaring with laughter at the

thought. ‘It’s true, it’s true,’ he says, removing his glasses to wipe

his eyes. ‘I do.’

‘It’s a terrible thing to confess, but I absolutely love it. I have a

wonderful time. I think I’m the most fortunate man on the planet.’

Top Gum: Shooting from the hip


‘Dermot [McNulty] and his team have taken our original vision and made

it work for global clients like Mastercard and Microsoft - which is

exactly the kind of business we want. So I have enormous confidence that

within five years about 30 to 40 per cent of our business will be global

accounts,which will be the bedrock of what we do. We now have several

clients who pay us dollars 5 million or more. Many of them could be

paying us twice or three times that amount when the business is fully

bedded in.

‘I want those global clients to stay with us for decades, so that they

trust us as much as they trust their own managers. The line between

being a consultant and being an employee is going to get finer, as we

get closer. The intimacy of the involvement is going to be


‘We don’t need to do what Burson-Marsteller has done, which is to, I

think quite wrongly, divide their business into practice areas. We have

a matrix structure which is what they have, but we also have a

traditional structure. Increasingly what will happen as these practice

areas develop is that you’ll lose the people, because they might as well

work at home. You’ve got to keep the historic way of reporting as well.

If you don’t, your business will disintegrate.’


‘You can’t say any more that PR isn’t important. We would never have had

the public attention we’ve had without people realising that PR was here

to stay. We have shown it can be powerful. We now must decide what kind

of industry we want. The things that have gone well in the industry

have been driven by external events. The things that have gone badly -

such as training, evaluation, and codes of practice - are things that we

should have done ourselves. We don’t cooperate with each other.

‘The CEO of a large public relations company said to me recently that he

wished he’d rung me before he snitched some chap from our business. He

said: ‘He’s terrible!’. I said: ‘I know he’s terrible, I would have told

you he was terrible.’ I don’t understand why we aren’t much more frank

with each other about these sorts of things.’

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