One of my former bosses recently posted a photo on Instagram of himself and a colleague waiting outside an undisclosed location for a mystery celebrity with the comment that a lot of PR is about waiting. This is true. We’re often waiting in trepidation of one thing or another - a feature running that we hope and believe will be positive but can never be 100% sure about until we see it; a celebrity client turning up for a photoshoot which we can never be sure about until it happens (cf. Atomic Kitten); a reply from a journalist about whether they would like to come to your painstakingly considered launch event. You know the kinda stuff.
But the job of a PR is also to keep secrets. We hold many. Some small secrets like when a long-awaited album by an internationally famous artist is going to finally appear; some large secrets like the one I’m about to describe.
In the summer of 2003, I was called to a meeting in advance of which I was told I could know nothing. It took place in the basement flat of a building in Chelsea and at the meeting it was revealed that Paul Burrell, erstwhile butler of Her Majesty The Queen and HRH Diana, Princess of Wales, had written a book, the revelations within which were explosive. The number of people who knew about this book could be counted on the fingers (and thumb) of a pair of mittens. I made that number five.
One of the other finger/thumbs was Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, who had bought the serial rights for the book and who had planned a quite brilliant revelation of its contents. He would create dummy versions of the first two editions of the paper on the relevant day, thus lulling the opposition papers into a false sense of something or other, and then splash with the news in the final edition at about 6am so that the other papers didn’t have time to react.
It was brilliant and yet it required maximum secrecy. So much so that I wasn’t even allowed to refer to the book in emails for fear of them being intercepted (by whom, I have no clue; but as Her Majesty allegedly said to the butler, “there are forces at work within this country about which we can know nothing”). As a result, I would often run back and forth to the book’s publishers with questions or strategy ideas.
On the day the story broke, I was in a B&B on the Welsh borders. Paul had flown to New York for “promo work” and I was due to act as gatekeeper at his house so that his wife and sons didn’t have to open the door to the media. I woke at 5am and started watching ITV news. There was no mention of Paul, Diana or anything else. The 6am breakfast show started. Still no mention. Finally at 6.20am, the presenter, John Stapleton, announced: “We’ve just received a copy of the final edition of the Daily Mirror with the most extraordinary story about Princess Diana”…………….