Max Clifford was the reason I nearly didn’t start a career in PR; and, perversely, he was the reason I eventually did!
When I moved back to the UK, having spent two years in America as a volunteer missionary, I was preparing for higher education. I was attracted to a degree that seemed to combined the things I was interested in (news, current affairs, journalism) with some of the things I might just be good at (English, creativity, presenting). A newly formed degree in public relations was suggested. But, with my history of volunteering for moral causes, I was reluctant.
For those who remember the early 90s, the buzz word was “spin” and the face of spin was Max Clifford. The only person who ever seemed to be rolled out in BBC News interviews as a “PR expert” was Max Bloomin’ Clifford… every time.
I wanted to feel like I was doing a worthwhile degree that would lead to a meaningful career which would contribute to society. Ironically, the field of reputation management, as PR is sometimes known, had a terrible reputation. Spin was a thinly veiled euphemism for lying and misrepresenting the truth. Clearly, there were PR practitioners that contributed to this image. But if one man personified the role of Chief Liar, it was Max Clifford.
As a result, I planned to find another field to study. That was until I spoke to the inaugural course leader for the BA (Hons) Public Relations degree, Anne Gregory. Anne, who later became the UK’s first professor of PR and served as President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), shared a vision of public relations that was markedly different from the caricature in the mainstream press. It was not, she said, about distorting facts and being fluffy. No, rather it was about truthful two-way communication. It was about honesty and honour. It was about democracy and engagement. Or, at least that is the vision she had for future of the industry.
When Anne looked me in the eye, and said “we need people to come and help change the industry,” I took the challenge. I am a sucker for a cause, especially one where the odds are stacked against success. I believed we could become agents of change and take on the charlatans, with Max Clifford as the figurehead.
And then, something happened that I didn’t expect. I met him.
I first encountered Max Clifford in the flesh during the first year of my public relations degree. He won’t remember but I do. Some fellow students with sufficient chutzpah invited Mr Clifford to face a lecture theatre of undergraduates at Leeds Metropolitan University.
A number of us were quite animated over the chance to put the sword to this man than skewed the reputation of the industry we were preparing to enter.
And then he spoke.
As an introduction, he explained that he didn’t describe himself as a PR expert. Rather he was a publicist. He blamed lazy, inaccurate media for giving him the title of public relations guru.
Then he stated, for the record that he tells lies for a living. “I lie on behalf of clients. Sometimes I lie to get them in the papers and sometimes I lie to keep them out of the media spotlight. That’s my job. Now we have got that out of the way, who has another subject they have a question about…”
It was masterful. Max Clifford was charming and disarming. He had drawn the sting out of the debate by admitting the greatest accusation. And most of the audience seemed satisfied to move on to other subjects.
But I was incensed… No! You can’t brush past this fundamental issue! What if someone was suspected of a heinous crime? What if they simply said: “Ok, let’s get this straight – I’m an axe murderer. I kill people from time to time. Now let’s move on to another question…” No, we wouldn’t just obediently introduce another subject. We would all insist that we deal with the worst accusation, which he had just admitted! But I was incensed in a very English, well-mannered sort of way. I wanted to shake my fist and say: “You might just get away with this you rotter… but I heard what you said and you still have big moral questions to address.”
And now Max Clifford is returning to Leeds to speak at the CIPR Northern Conference on 31-Oct-2012 (book tickets here) to address privacy and the media landscape in a post-Leveson world. Expect lively debate.
Do some people in PR lie and mislead the public? Of course. But my position is that this should never be acceptable. Never. Ever.
Not even when someone as Teflon-coated as Max Clifford is operating. Not even if he is otherwise a wonderful human being, who dotes on his family and does amazing things for the charitable causes which he chooses (which he does).
I have been consistent on this subject, I hope, throughout my career (see previous blogs). Let’s be honest. Let’s not turn a blind eye. Let’s raise the standard.