By Philip Young, Programme Leader for BA and MA Public Relations and Course Leader for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Professional Certificate and Professional Diploma, Birmingham City University.

While sympathising with his family, few in the world of public relations (PR) will shed a tear at the loss of Max Clifford. PR is a much misunderstood industry and, for many years, part of the problem was that its most prominent practitioner was better described as a ‘publicist’. Clifford’s mission was to generate newspaper headlines, to sell stories to the tabloids, and – a source of great pride to him – to keep uncomfortable stories out of the media.

Unfortunately, Clifford was a fantasist who had little regard for the truth. Facts meant nothing to him, not least when engineering the infamous ‘FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER’ headline of 1986. Clifford wanted publicity, The Sun wanted to sell papers, and no-one was troubled too much about what really happened to a small mammal.

Clifford’s role in so many memorable tabloid splashes convinced much of the public that PR was all about dealing with journalists – tricking, fooling and threatening them into telling stories that made money for his clients. Furthermore, it didn’t help that the second most famous ‘PR’ of the time was Alastair Campbell. Again, not a PR practitioner at all, but a master of the dark art of spin.

PR does lots of good things and lots of bad things; the balance is endlessly debatable. But what is beyond doubt is that PR is a much broader discipline than simply dealing with journalists – media relations is an important specialism – and that most practitioners believe truth and accuracy is essential to being effective in their role.

Public relations is about trust and no-one could ever trust Max Clifford.

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