PR Pressure

When celebrities end up on the wrong side of a lawsuit, they often find their publicists to be invaluable tools in the fight to keep their brand intact. But when a PR faces a lawsuit, where do they turn? Well, if you’re Richard Hillgrove of Hillgrove PR, you turn to… yourself. And he could be the biggest tool of them all.

Max Clifford has left a lot of people disappointed. When he was arrested, we were all hoping he would finally crack. That it was only a matter of time before he went kamikaze and tried to take down absolutely everyone he knew in one final blaze of indignity. Sadly, he appears to have maintained his composure – even in the face of all those tiny willy allegations.

Deep down though, we knew Clifford was too smart to take the nuclear option. But what if there was a PR out there who was stupid enough to do just that? Someone so egomaniacal that they would push the button the second their back was to the wall? What the hell would happen then?

Funny you should ask…

We first became properly aware of self-styled ‘PR guru’ Richard Hillgrove around the time of the Nigella-Saatchi scandal. In the huge floods of emails we got from PRs offering their celebrity clients’ unrequested opinions on the matter, Hillgrove’s emails really stood out. Why? Because, unlike everyone else, rather than taking the side of the much admired Nigella, Hillgrove aligned himself with the cautioned throttler, Charles Saatchi.

Now, it takes some chops to fly in the face of such popular opinion. It takes even more chops to actually out-and-out accuse a victim of domestic abuse of being a liar and a fraud. But if there’s one thing that Richard Hillgrove has, it is chops.

Last week, Hillgrove (personally) was found guilty of tax evasion. Instead of accepting the verdict with grace, or even a bit of sense, he did something very unusual. He opened up his email and fired off a message to his mailing list, entitled:

 “PR found guilty of tax evasion: ‘I got done because HMRC can’t get my clients'”

A bold enough conspiracy to start spinning when you aren’t pointing any fingers, but on opening the email we see the first line – in bold, double-sized font:

Which is a batshit move, by anyone’s reckoning.

The implication he’s making here is that James Caan, Sting and Trudie Styler are tax evaders, isn’t he? We’ve searched for other readings into it, but just can’t quite find any. He’s not levelling an accusation of tax efficiency – which is ethically questionable, but entirely legal. He is just about calling them out as actual, criminal tax evaders. That’s something pretty close to libel, as any good PR man would be able to tell you.

We would never dare to suggest any of this ourselves. Seriously. This isn’t a wink wink, nudge nudge sort of thing. We are not accusing Caan, Sting or Styler of anything – especially nothing that serious. The worst we’d accuse them of is having bad taste in PRs. We mention the names only to show how peculiar a move it is on Hillgrove’s part.

First off, we can’t get our heads around why anyone would send out a press release to pretty much the whole media pointing out they’d just got done for a serious crime, unless it was to take control of the media narrative. But there is no narrative. The accountancy and tax trade press were pretty much the only people following Hillgrove’s case, apart from the odd court reporter. So, in sending that email, more damage to Hillgrove’s career must have been done. Caan, Sting and Styler would have to be capable of superhuman loyalty to continue to pay the man a wage to take care of their interests. But it doesn’t end with just those three.

What started out looking like skin-saving vaguery in the subject line (“my clients”) could actually be his biggest undoing. Because with that one ill-chosen sentence he has tarred every single one of his clients with the tax evader brush. All of them. His entire customer base. The very people who pay his bills. Or, more correctly, would be paying his bills, if Hillgrove wasn’t evading most of them.

Presumably Hillgrove is expecting a custodial sentence, because having now badmouthed everyone he works for – accusing them all of criminal conduct – he isn’t going to have any obvious way of paying off a fine.

His sentence is expected in the next three weeks – pending a report from the Probation Service. We can be sure that he’ll email as soon as he knows. We’re hoping His Honour shows some leniency. Our lives would be a lot less colourful without the Hillgrove press release.