Max Clifford Interview: Adventures In The PR Trade And Why He Tried To Warn Simon Cowell

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STARR CLIFFORD COWELL
Max Clifford has been handling the PR affairs of the good, bad and naughty for more than 40 years | PA

Soooo... Simon Cowell, good week or bad week?

Max Clifford doesn’t hesitate. “Bad week.”

He continues: “But I told Simon, this would happen if he spoke to Tom Bower. But he went and spoke to him, based on Bernie Ecclestone’s recommendation, and this is what happens… “

And he sighs. You get the impression his world would be a much smoother-run place, if a much less interesting one for us hacks, if everyone would just listen to the PR wisdom built on his 40 years at the top of the tree, supporting the fame and limiting the infamy of the great and good among us. With Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali among his earliest clients, I doubt Simon Cowell can tell Max Clifford anything he doesn’t already know about the perils of fame.

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What about Tulisa – did she handle the fall-out from the obligatory sex-tape any better?

“Well, the thing that rescued Tulisa was that she really wasn’t doing anything different from what everyone’s up to these days," says a 68-old man, unusually versed in sex tape etiquette. "There was nothing that really set it apart and had to be managed from a different angle.”

If it there had been an “extra element” to spin, well, that’s when Clifford’s obviously your man.

The great, good and very naughty have all crossed his threshold. Most of his cash comes from dry, relatively well-behaved, corporate stuff that wouldn’t raise a titter – “I’m just back from China, where I’ve been advising the mayor of Beijing” (the mind boggles) – but he’s had plenty of clients who have, with his help, made it to the front pages and stayed there – Rebecca Loos (for her Beckham connection), Antonia De Sancha (David Mellor and a Chelsea football strip… eewww!), Pamella Bordes (politicians), Jade Goody, Mohammed Fayed...

The list goes on and on. Through all the exponential media traffic that’s been circulating for the last quarter-century, it’s as though Clifford has been an increasingly high-profile warden, standing in the middle, directing operations.

So what's been the most significant change to the job in the four decades, since he set up stall in the office behind Joe Cocker’s manager?

“Well, it used to be all about promoting people, getting their names, their music, their stories out there. These days, it’s become about protecting people, keeping much more stuff quiet.”

At a conference I went to about a decade ago, Clifford explained that 70% of his work involved keeping people out of the papers. He concurs this is still the case – “about two thirds” – but what can he do when clients take it upon themselves to comment, or – the horror – get on the twitter-phone?

“Well, it can be tricky, but the good news it’s equally quick to correct something that’s inaccurate. Everyone’s reading the same stuff. Plus, it’s easier to find who said what, so everyone’s more accountable.”

"Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster"

One of the most memorable tabloid headlines ever, courtesy of Mr Clifford having a particularly creative day

What about the old adage – that there really is no such thing as bad publicity?

“Completely untrue,” he bellows, sounding quite indignant. “I’ve seen lives ruined, people destroyed by the things they’ve had said about them.”

And this is where it gets interesting. Because for every Simon Cowell and Alex Hall (Mrs Ex-Jeremy Clarkson), there are a whole load of people that Clifford stretches himself to support, that don’t make it into the papers, people like Robert Murat, the Algarve-based property consultant falsely suspected, for a time, of involvement in Madeleine McCann's disappearance:

“I did what I could for him, because it was incredibly unfair what happened, he hadn’t done anything, and the British media destroyed him, his name was mud. And he didn’t pay me anything, because he didn’t have any money.”

Until Clifford helped him win an estimated £600,000, anyway, in libel settlements, mostly from the tabloids.

Is there anyone the PR guru wouldn’t represent for the right price?

“Many, many people – I’ve turned down so many jobs. Either because I didn’t agree with what they were doing, or I just didn’t like them, or because I was too busy doing other stuff.”

So what’s the rule of thumb – Clifford’s own moral code that determines whether or not he’ll pick up his phone (the mind boggles at who must be on speed dial)?

“Pure, gut instinct. And it’s served me well. Even when other people weren’t prepared to do it, I took on the tabloids for telephone hacking, and then when I won, that’s when they stepped forward.”

Max Clifford's top ten tips for fame, as he told Fame TV back in 2006:
  • Appear on a reality series
  • Enter a talent contest
  • Be abysmal on a talent show
  • Gain fame by association
  • Date a celebrity
  • Flaunt your body
  • Date a Royal Family member
  • Make a home sex video
  • Be a success on MySpace
  • (best swap this for Twitter in 2012)
  • Be in the right place at the right time

For a man whose phone must ring more often than most at odd hours of the night, I’d think it’d be difficult to escape the demands of the job. But Clifford seems completely happy to switch off.

“I’m not generally friends with my clients. I’ll spend time with them, it’s a job, and then we all go home. If I have a party, it’s not full of stars, there’s my wife and my real friends, people from all walks of life.”

It’s as though Max Clifford knows better than anyone that what he gets up to is mostly a game, although one with high personal stakes for the people involved, and rich rewards, for himself not least. But he's undeniably an influence among the fields of politics and media, where things have more rippling consequences than just memories of David Mellor making love in a football strip (pause to let that settle), and his is the first, pretty much only, name that comes to mind when anyone thinks of his particular trade. So what’s kept him going so much longer, and more successfully, than many other practitioners?

“I think I’m just very honest with my clients. When someone phones me and they’ve been caught out doing something wrong, I tell them, ‘If there’s someone who knows more about this than I do, you’re wasting your money and my time.’

“And generally they agree, and we work something out.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when THAT conversation takes place…

Max Clifford will be talking about his career and why PR is essential for your business, at the Forward Ladies support organisation for women in business) 'An Evening with Max Clifford at Embassy, Mayfair' event on Thursday 3rd May 6.30pm. A percentage from all ticket sales will go to the Shooting Star Chase children's hospice of which Max Clifford is patron.

Click here for more information and to book tickets

Around the Web

Simon Cowell - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Simon Cowell - IMDb

Simon Cowell (@SimonCowell) on Twitter