Remembering Max Clifford
About the author
Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
The end of a life encourages a moment’s reflection. Max Clifford‘s end was not as he would have envisaged it: he was always the master of his own destiny, the hero of his own story. Yet he retained the power to make headlines to the end.
His death from a heart attack in prison should allow us to move on from the awkwardness that Max Clifford was not part of our business, yet for many he came to represent it.
News reports today describe him as a ‘celebrity publicist’ (BBC), ‘disgraced former celebrity publicist’ (Telegraph), ‘former publicist’ (Guardian). There’s some distance in those descriptions.
But he was also the ‘go-to PR mogul‘ (Mail) and a ‘PR guru‘ (Mirror). So there are still hints to remind us what a problem he was for PR over many years.
Max Clifford’s story was a rags-to-riches narrative involving the Beatles, the swinging sixties, the rise of celebrity culture and the high tide of tabloid journalism.
Learned articles have been written by media academics about the famous Sun headline ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, yet it’s hard to explain to today’s students just how dominant the tabloid newspapers were in the 1980s. Max Clifford was a trusted channel for tabloid stories (true or invented) and a highly paid adviser to those seeking fame, or seeking to hide their secrets from the prying press.
He was proud of his power to make – or mask – the news. Perhaps today’s headlines are the last of if – assuming no more major scandals or cover-ups emerge in future.
‘Celebrity publicist’ sums him up well. He knew the power of a story when magnified by the press, he knew what would appeal to journalists and editors, and he knew the commercial value of the stories he peddled. There was also plenty of money in this for him, as he was trusted to fight the corner of his celebrity clients whether that meant getting stories in or keeping them out of the media.
Fame helped attract new business, so he was never shy of accepting media invitations to speak as a ‘PR guru’.
He was convicted of historical sexual assaults on women and young girls – an abuse of power that has become a depressingly familiar story. Clifford maintained his innocence and the Court of Appeal was to have considered his case in the New Year. As so often with Max Clifford, the truth proved elusive.
Those representing the public relations professional bodies repeatedly raised the question of ethics with Max Clifford. He brushed aside their questions and concerns, and pointed to his success as vindication of his methods. This success brought him the freedom to pursue his own political campaigns and charitable causes.
In his own eyes he was a hero protecting professional footballers from the storm that would have engulfed them if they had come out in public as gay. He believed in his power to judge the public mood.
His outsider status in the public relations industry became a badge of honour. I recall him talking proudly of having maintained his membership of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for decades after he had moved on from journalism, even as he avoided any formal association with the public relations professional bodies.
Max Clifford was a problem for PR. But he’s also a problem for journalism which has to explain away the origins and accuracy of stories like ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’.
His life will soon be consigned to a historical footnote that’s more likely to be taught to journalism students than PR students.