You can have all the strategy meetings in the world but without a good story the PR is like a footballer without a ball. After 40 years in the PR business, working with everyone from The Who to The Spice Girls, I know there is more to it than just telling a journalist the music being made is worth hearing. There’s got to be a narrative to accompany it. Here are a few rules to getting those stories heard.
Rule 1: You need stamina
A PR agency is nothing without new business and sometimes you’ll do anything to secure it. In 1981 I was approached to represent The Rolling Stones. Getting to work with the band came in the form of two challenges. The first was a formal interview and slightly nerve-racking exam scenario with Mick Jagger. We were in a large room overlooking Central Park and he interrogated me in what has to rank as one of the most intense interviews ever. What was the circulation of Liberation? Who was the music correspondent on El Pais? Which papers were published by the Axel Springer group? I got through and thought the job was mine.
A few days later I was in my office on Edgeware Road at 9.30pm when the phone rang. It was Keef “Listen here sonny boy Jim, I run the effin Rolling Stones and not Mick Jagger”. He suggested if I wanted the job I should meet him at a rehearsal studio in Shepperton at midnight. I was confused as I thought I’d already been hired. I knew Mick was having dinner at a nice Italian on Cheyne Walk so slipped in and told him what Keith had just said. He looked at me incredulously and said, “you’d better go then hadn’t you?” and carried on with his pasta.
On arrival in Shepperton I was shown into a tiny room with a broken window, rusty sink and no chair. I stood there for an hour, and another one and I watched as dawn broke. At 8am Keith burst into the room and fired a volley of questions at me about blues and reggae – something luckily I knew a lot about. A few days later I was hired to handle the publicity for the biggest band in the world at the age of 23 (for the princely sum of £150 per week.)
Rule 2: Mainstream isn’t a dirty word
It was 1977, clothes were ripped and punk was King. At the time I was working with the Stranglers - a band a bit older than some of the punks - and in many cases with more of a grasp of melodies and playing their instruments. But this wasn’t cool; I needed to make them more punk. So I invented a fanzine called Strangled, got it photocopied up and handed it out at gigs. I also began to talk to the media about how Stranglers gigs were often violent and at the same time immensely exciting. If one police car turned up it became 10 van loads of cops.
Rule 3: Sometimes it can all go down the pan…literally.
It was a big day in pop history - Geri had decided to leave the Spice Girls. The girls and I were in a lawyer’s house working on a media statement. The press was gathering and it was sure to be a long day, so I took the opportunity to use the bathroom. Seconds later I watched in horror as my hotline to the world’s media – my brick of a mobile phone - disappeared down the pan.
There were ten minutes before I was scheduled to issue the statement, so I slipped out of the back door, ran down Fulham High Street in the pouring rain and was fleeced for £600 for a replacement phone. So thankfully I was able to ease the pain of the fans and get the story out that the Spice Girls weren’t splitting up and had a stadium tour coming up. And some West London phone shop owner probably had a good night too.
Rule 4: Trust your instincts
When I was 16 I spent seven months travelling by bus, train and even hitching from the UK through to Turkey and Iran to the Himalayas, Pakistan. I learned some life skills that definitely set me in good stead for my as of yet unimagined career in PR. There were some challenging moments in places like Afghanistan. Without communication skills I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived it as you have to make instant judgments about people in situations like that. I ran out of money in Delhi and had to beg and borrow a bit. It was a fascinating but often very lonely and at times strange journey. It helped teach me to be self sufficient and to be happy in my own company and get on with people from every possible background at later times in my career in PR. I often drew on these memories for strength, getting told off for a bad review for a record was nothing compared to some of the things I’d been through.
Rule 5: Who’d be a PR?
A few years later I’d been hired to take journalists to review The Who at Wembley and had optimistically offered them all interviews with the band. As I made my way down the labyrinth of corridors and dressing rooms with the hacks, someone loudly told me to F off. I knocked on another door and was told to F off again. We then watched as Keith Moon was sent flying through the air and landed in a slump. I was reminded of my travels and the need to read the situation. So rather than join the fight, I concluded they weren’t keen on us and slipped away into the background. I thought my time in PR was over as I trudged away from Wembley with the irate media in tow. That was 40 years ago …
Rule 6: Know your figures
The important ones anyway. My first boss was PR legend Keith Altham – he had worked for Jimi Hendrix and had the last interview with him before his untimely death. Keith often used to sit me down at the end of the day, roll a spliff and talk to me about literature, journalism and legendary Fleet Street editors.
When I started, Keith gave me a list of things to know. The first was to always return phone calls. The second - still as prevalent today - was to buy a half when it was your round but always ask for a pint when it’s someone else. Especially if the record company was buying.
Alan Edwards is Founder of PR firm The Outside Organisation. He presents Music Moguls on BBC 4 on Friday 29 Jan at 10pm.