From 'useless journalist' to Rolling Stones PR: Alan Edwards reflects on 40 years of working with Fleet Street

Since 1975, PR Alan Edwards has represented The Who, the Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, the Spice Girls, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Robbie Williams, Naomi Campbell and the Beckhams. 

But he never wanted to go into PR, and wouldn’t have done so if he had been able to earn a living in music journalism. Forty years ago, struggling to pay his £4-a-week rent, earning £5 a review from various music titles – and “living off free T-shirts and food” from events – Edwards went to work for The Who’s PR man Keith Altham “for a month” before intending to go back to journalism – “so it’s been a slow return”.

Edwards, sitting in the Tottenham Court Road office of his PR company, The Outside Organisation, describes himself as a "useless journalist":

 

But I certainly spent a couple of years running around, seeing unknown bands, being up till God-knows-when in the morning interviewing people and trying to get headlines.

I was a bit of a novice, and I loved it. And I didn’t really want to be a PR. I wanted to be a journalist. This was all sort of an accident, really.

Things didn’t start smoothly in PR for Edwards, though. After a couple of days in the job, he was tasked with taking a group of high-profile Fleet Street reviewers to see The Who in Wembley. With no instructions, he asked the group to meet him at Oxford Circus at 6pm.

Well, 6 o’clock Tube train up to Wembley, you can imagine – everyone’s jammed in like sardines, and I could see the reporters were really thrown by this. Because in that era in the early 70s – unbeknown to me – you laid on limousines. You know, I think they were expecting it was going to be a private Tube train up there – not in the rush hour. And I had no idea, because I would have always gone on the Tube train to gigs.

So I remember they all fell out of the train at Wembley Park looking really not very impressed with my PR so far. And I realised I was in trouble, so I thought I’d offer them all exclusive interviews with The Who, just presuming that would be okay.

So we weaved our way backstage through the corridors at Wembley and I knock on The Who’s door, and I could feel these ten pairs of eyes boring into my back, and I knock on the door and say: ‘Hello, I’m the PR man, I’m from Keith Altham’s office, I’ve got the media, would you’ – and someone says: ‘Fuck off!’ The door slams in my face.

And I look round and they’re all really getting agitated so I thought I’d better knock again. So I knock, door opens, and – and as the door opens I can see one of the members of the group flying through the air, there’s a fist fight going on – ‘I’m from the PR office’: ‘Fuck off, will you.' The door slams shut.

I got home that night and I thought: I can’t do PR. I’m not cut out for this. I don’t know how to do it.

But obviously after a week or two I did find actually I loved it and I had a natural aptitude for it because I loved stories, I loved journalism, and I realised it gave me a platform to write and to read.

My boss Keith, who was a great guy – and he’s still around but retired… he’d sit me down at the end of the evening, after work usually, and he’d roll up a spliff, or whatever, and he’d say: ‘Have you ever read Ernest Hemingway?’ And I said: ‘Well, actually, no.’ And he’d say: ‘Well, go and get the Old Man and the Sea, or go and get this.’ And then next night it would be Graham Greene, or whatever. So I was really getting an education as part of it.

Part of Edwards’ training included frequent trips to Fleet Street, enabling him to sample the “final moments of that Dickensian sort of atmosphere”.

You’d go down to Bouverie Street and the road was closed because there were rolls of newsprint literally 20ft high across the road, and Fleet Street was abuzz with activity.

And you could go into the newsroom – it would be gigantic, the machinery would be clanking, and there’d be photographs being put in tubes and zooming across the room at 200ft. And I learned that a sub wasn’t something from a Second World War movie. And you’d get marched in to see the editor – it would be 11 in the morning – and they’d pull open the drinks cabinet and put a bottle of scotch on the table. It was 11 in the morning! I thought: I love this job – it’s great.

It was just the most exciting atmosphere. I know it was a bit 'Life on Mars' because everyone was heavy drinking… shabeens round the back of Fleet Street – but I just, for me, it was really, really, really exciting.

Times have changed, however. No major news organisations are based on Fleet Street, and hundreds of journalism jobs have been lost in recent years as newspaper and magazine circulations have fallen. How has the journalism industry changed in Edwards' time – and has there been a reduction in quality in recent years?

I don’t think so much the quality of journalism has declined… But the investment, obviously, by newspaper groups – or some newspaper groups – in journalism has declined and that really affects it.

Certainly when I was a teenager starting out, if I phoned in a story it might be checked two or three or four times. So if I said there had been a punch-up in the pub with the Sex Pistols or something, a lot of people would check it. Now the resources are limited. People are stretched thin. And I think that can make it a challenge.

So I think that is difficult. But then when I started the newspaper industry was much smaller. You had about 15 very significant national titles, regional papers were much bigger. When you went to the newsagent there wasn’t 20 music magazines, there was three or four papers. So I think journalism expanded – by the 90s it had probably quadrupled in size – and now of course it’s gone down.

How has the growth of online, and social media websites, changed his job in PR?

In one way they’ve made it a lot more complicated, because it’s much bigger. Instead of worrying about a limited amount of national newspapers, you are thinking about thousands of websites, bloggers, people tweeting, Instagram – so that’s harder.

I think the other thing that’s really changed now is the speed of the story. If you get a story put to you you might have half an hour to respond to it. Whereas previously you had a day. And if it was a Friday – probably no one was going to print a thing until the following Monday – you might even have the whole weekend to figure out a response.

Now, you’ve got to be very immediate. I actually think that transparency and speed, I think it benefits the nimble, the agile and the smart operators and good PRs. Because there’s not time.

I felt in the 90s, PR became quite formulaic because it was all about sending out hundreds of emails and everything was the same. Now I think you’ve got to be – because there’s so much of it in the media and it’s so fast – you’ve got to be very quick, you’ve got to have very creative ideas, and you maybe can’t consult your client. Because your client might be on an aeroplane going to the other side of the world. And if you’ve got those ten minutes to react you better be instinctive… I’m enjoying it. I think it’s an exciting time to be in PR.

How has showbiz journalism changed in his time?

When I started celebrity journalism didn’t really exist. And then there was Hello magazine and… by about ten years ago I mean celebrity was really driving the whole popular culture, and there was really very rarely a day when Katie Price wasn’t on the front cover – or Amy Winehouse, or whatever. Although I think Amy was an artist as opposed to a celebrity.

And then, of course, post-Leveson a lot of things have changed. It’s not just Leveson. I think the economic crash meant that there probably wasn’t as much… you know, Britain was the centre of celebrity culture. There wasn’t as much money, there weren’t as many events, there wasn’t as much going on, and it’s definitely diminished. You’ve only got to look at the sales figures of something like an OK magazine [to see this].

And we don’t have a Posh and Becks right now. I was lucky enough to work with them and they were great fun, [and] it’s hard to say how big they were. They were globally important. And now I don’t think you’ve got anyone quite that level.

Speaking of journalism post-Leveson, has the press become tamer – or easier to deal with – in recent years?

Well, I’ve never found them hard to deal with, to be honest, because I’ve always… a lot of my friends are journalists, I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with them.

I’ve been criticised by clients for being too close to the media at various times. And I’ve said, well, actually, in a way that’s a strength because I can give you a good feel of what the media genuinely think about something… So I don’t find them any easier to deal with – it’s not a case of easier or harder.

I think it’s more difficult for some of them, especially in areas like music, because you can’t just say to someone get on a plane and go out to LA and you can interview Bon Jovi – it’s now much more complicated. You’ve got to sort of stand it up and make it work in different ways.

Have the days of Max Clifford-style PR, selling stories about clients to newspapers for publicity, gone?

Max Clifford’s an interesting character. Because I never considered him a  PR.

I remember once I was in a car with David Beckham and we were coming back from some event and – it must have been a nice car because I’m sure it had a TV in it. Anyway, Max Clifford came up – sort of publicity expert on the Beckhams, you know, on TV – and I remember David turning around to me and saying: ‘Who is this bloke? I’ve never heard of him. I’ve never met him.’

So I think Max was a very clever operator, but I never considered him a PR. He didn’t have long-term clients generally and he did deals. And that’s not my – it wasn’t my understanding of what the profession of PR was.

So you've never sold stories in this way?

It’s not to say I haven’t done the odd celebrity deal, but the great majority of our clients have been with us for a long time. David Bowie I’m happy to say has been with us for 34 years. The Who probably even longer…

I try and take a long-term view on things that we do. So it’s not just about 'can we make this story work tomorrow and screw the consequences next month?' – I’m always trying to advise clients and think about 'well there’s next year, or the year after'. We want relationships to work forever.

And it’s been very hard at times. Because people will come in and just burn everything up for a year or two and then disappear.

With the rise of social media, do celebrities feel they can bypass the traditional media?

A little bit. Obviously when Twitter first came it was very exciting… I remember there was a quote from Alan Sugar [who] said: 'I’m bigger than the Daily Mail.' And someone said: 'How’s that?' And he said…: ‘I’ve got more followers on Twitter than the Daily Mail’.

Which actually is a bit of a meaningless thing. Because it’s still always about the idea, the message, the content. And I think after the novelty had worn off people still realised it’s not about the delivery message – it’s about what am I saying? And who am I trying to reach? And that’s where you come back to the professional.

I think there was a time, I don’t know, five years ago, where everyone migrated to Shoreditch in a way and it’s all ‘we can do it ourselves’. But then I noticed a couple of years ago a distinct swing back the other way of ‘well, there are billions of things out there on the net’, you know, you’ve really still got to be heard.

And that’s a combination of what people might people call might call old media and new media – they’re all vital and they all work together.

One of the first things Edwards says during this interview is that he does not want there to be an "us and them" attitude between PRs and journalists. He believes journalists and PRs share many characteristics – which, he says, is why so many make the switch into his trade – and he is keen to emphasise this, and his fondness for journalism.

The first thing I always say to clients is: Look, you know, we’re kind of all in a similar situation and ultimately the journalist is – same as anyone else – they want to do their story, they want to go home to their family, they want to go out for dinner, they want to do whatever they do.

No one’s out to stitch you up… really what they want is the truth. Obviously I’m always going to present – any PR’s going to present – their client’s interest in the best way they can. But ultimately that’s what it is – it shouldn’t be an adversarial scenario."

With this in mind, Edwards is later this month hosting a series of discussions with journalists and others on the subject of PR and its "evolving role within fashion, culture, media, entertainment, sports and politics". Guest speakers include Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands, Dan Wootton and Tony Parsons of The Sun, GQ editor Dylan Jones, The Sunday Times's foreign correspondent Hala Jaber, Tom Watson MP, Bob Geldof and Alastair Campbell. More information here.

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