From punk to publicity

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication and project communication. Ann leads the CIPR internal comms certificate course. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

According to Richard Bailey, editor of PR Place: “Borkowski has done more than anyone to rehabilitate and celebrate the craft of the publicist by recognising the sophisticated use of psychology and visual communication.”

His first book, Improperganda, illustrated the art of the publicity stunt – with a nod in the title to Edward Bernays. His next book, The Fame Formula, related the often scandalous history of Hollywood publicity and the makings of celebrity culture.

More recently, he has talked about the value of age and experience being part of the purpose of his business.

“If the human race spent more time studying the past, we would have a healthier society,” so says, Mark Borkowski, the latest interview in my #50Over50 series.

Experience matters. If you are advising someone on the board, someone of significance who isn’t 25, you need those life skills, your black book, relationships that have been hard earned.

“I’ve invested in my assets for 30 years, I am still talking to people today who I knew when they were on local papers back in the 1980s. Those relationships matter, it’s about building trust and that’s the sort of stuff that makes this job rewarding.

While Mark talks about the industry as having “massive long term amnesia”, this isn’t the conversation he has with clients. “I never talk about how it was ‘great back then’” he says. “People want to hear about the future. I preach to my clients about the NOW. And it’s exciting, I have AI clients that bedazzle me. But it is also about being age appropriate. Clients want someone who has the battle scars, who has seen the ups and downs, the highs and lows. But now I am more likely to be sitting at the back of the room. It works though. As people are working things through someone will ask ‘what does Mark think’? Everyone has to turn around and then I have their attention!”

Unlike many of his generation that I have featured in this column, Mark started out as a publicist (and he is proud to call himself one, apparently that’s what it says on his passport too!) rather than in journalism or other route. It’s always been a vocation for me. I take an anthropological perspective, it’s about knowing what drives a crowd and how you affect it.”

Mark’s inspiration was Malcolm McLaren – those of us in the #50Over50 age bracket will of course remember him as the person who pretty much kickstarted punk. Back in the 70s, he sensed the mood of the time. He was a spotter of trends and translated them into fashion too with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood.

“I couldn’t play a musical instrument though” explains Mark. “But I could see what he was doing and it set me on a journey.”

So what of PR now? Mark says his biggest frustration is that the public only see the ‘kiss and tell’ machine at work. The industry doesn’t do enough to promote the best parts of it. “For example, that relationships based on trust, not on lies, are at the heart of it. There is still an extraordinary misunderstanding of what this industry is.”

Perhaps the industry is to blame though. Mark feels there is too much time spent biggingup the glamour side of the business when to succeed you need discipline and attention to detail. “It’s too easy to set up a PR company, you couldn’t do it in law or accountancy. The dissolution of the media empires has meant a lot of journalists moving into PR but not necessarily being great at it.”

It’s a tough business according to Mark and it can be sink or swim for entrants. “Of course it’s about fees but this means that sometimes agencies can’t nurture, give people time to grow.”

It’s a pretty unforgiving business. There’s a lot of nepotism and a lack of diversity in terms of where people come from. PR is one of the worst industries for that, for not reaching out. For some it is simply unassailable because they just can’t afford to live in London.

“We need to ask ourselves if we are trying hard enough.”

Thank you to Heather Yaxley for nominating Mark.