The Bridge Interviews
There is a saying in the media world that “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for”. This month’s interviewee is a man who has made his career protecting and enhancing the reputations of his clients and in the process has become perhaps this country’s best- known practitioner of the arts of public relations. He also owns the most famous house in Burford and has restored it to its former glory. It was once the home of William Lenthall, who was Speaker of the House of Commons the last time the executive tried to govern without the consent of Parliament. How times change.
More of that in a moment but first some background on Matthew’s extraordinary family. His great-grandfather was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. His father, Sir Clement Freud, had multiple careers including being one of the first celebrity chefs, a radio and TV personality and a sporting journalist. He became very famous for appearing in dog food commercials with a bloodhound called Henry, both of them sharing a lugubrious expression. Later he was MP for the Isle of Ely for 14 years. Matthew’s mother was an actress under the stage name of Jill Raymond. She now runs theatre festivals near her home in Suffolk. She was evacuated during the war to the home of the writer C. S. Lewis in Oxford. The character Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia was based on her.
It goes on… one of his sisters is Emma Freud, broadcaster and editor, whose partner, Richard Curtis, is a leading scriptwriter, film producer and director whose credits include Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and many others. His uncle was Lucian Freud, one of the 20th century’s most notable painters, and his cousins include fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelists Esther Freud and Susie Boyt.
Matthew was born and grew up in London. What was it like being in such a famous family? “At that time there were not as many famous people as there are today. I remember when I was about six going with my father when he judged a dog show in Greenwich and it dawned on me that he was incredibly famous. It was odd being different from others by association with a famous person. I later realised that there were others in the same position as me, only partly owning their own identity. My dad had the same experience through being the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who was world famous at a time before television when even fewer people could be so well known. I suppose that the reason there have been so many over- achieving Freuds may be that they were motivated to do something to make themselves noticed in their own right”.
After leaving Westminster School Matthew “fell into” the world of PR. “There were people at school whose families were in businesses such as banking and oil and they followed the same career. I couldn’t do something that a family member had done. After about a year in the job someone told me that public relations had been invented by a man called Edward Bernays. It turned out that he was my great uncle”.
He describes his first job as “the teaboy”. His company were handling a band who had brought out an album which had not done well. When they made their next album they were passed over to the teaboy to handle. They were called the Eurythmics and the album was Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). The title track became a worldwide hit and topped the charts in various countries including the USA. He also looked after an Irish band, Clannad. They provided the closing music for the television series Harry’s Game, set in Belfast during The Troubles. The Theme from Harry’s Game was commercially released and reached the top five in the British and Irish singles charts.
Matthew therefore felt “I can do this”. He set up his own company, Freud Communications, just after his twenty first birthday. “My life has been very boring. I started the company in 1985 and I am still running it today”. His first clients were Clannad, who followed him to his new base, and Uri Geller, the magician and illusionist who achieved fame by bending spoons. “I started with £100 and went to Prontaprint for my business cards and letter heading. There were four people at our first Christmas party.” (The company now has about 300 staff).
Why has public relations become such a big industry? “It is about reputation. Reputation is what others say about you. It is a commodity. In the 1980s everyone had a good reputation. It didn’t count for much. It was an age of deference. People had a basic respect for politicians, doctors, celebrities and others. Then the media became more aggressive. Good journalism is expensive, bad journalism is cheap. Finding a flaw in someone is regarded as a good story. This came into sharp acceleration after the millennium with the MPs’ expenses scandal and the financial crisis. Celebrities started falling like ninepins. Reputation became rarer and more valuable. With the advent of social media people would hear quickly about whether a company’s products were no good or they were not paying tax. As there was less reputation, it became more valuable and people made greater efforts to protect it.”
Is most of your work building up reputations or protecting them after they has been damaged? “It used to be about establishing and building a reputation. Now it is more about damage limitation. The 2007 crash was a tipping point.
“Now 90% of our work is about sustainability. The United Nations has set up 17 sustainable development goals and 193 countries have signed up to them. They are about health, the environment, marine preservation and so on. The best way a company can establish its values is not by talking about them but by acting on them. Our advice to clients is ‘be better’ ”. He instances a company which was obtaining chocolate from the Ivory Coast where there were reports of corruption and use of child labour. Freuds helped them to address this so that their production is now 100% sustainable.
“Once industrial pollution was not really thought about. Now you have to be aware of the impact of your behaviour. Tobacco manufacturing may be a profitable industry but it has consequences. You are held to account for the totality of your actions rather than your profitability. Nietzsche said ‘I am not angry that you lied. I am angry that I can’t believe what you say next’. What a company does when not in a crisis counts ten times more than when it is in a crisis. Otherwise the reaction is ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you?’ ”. He gives as an example the scandal that hit Volkswagen over the emissions from diesel cars. “If you have a good reputation you are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.” ( Or, as the saying has it, trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback.)
Does he have to be very careful about who he acts for? He explains that Freuds will not act for people who they do not trust, only for those who take a long term view of the reputation of their business. They would not act, for example, for venture capitalists who want to turn round a business quickly and sell it for a profit.
What campaigns is he proudest of? He mentions (RED) - that’s its name - a charity which he works on with Bono and Bobby Shriver, a nephew of President John F. Kennedy. It partners with companies and licenses them to produce (RED) products so you can buy, for example, a red iPhone XR, Nike trainers with red laces or an INSPI(RED) T shirt. So far it has raised USD650m to combat HIV, malaria and TB and has kept 15m people alive. (Yes, that’s fifteen million).
Thirdly there is BLUE, the Blue Marine Foundation which was set up ten years ago and works to establish marine conservation areas. He is enthusiastic about the campaign and the fact that the issue of plastic in the oceans has gained traction from a standing start. “It is remarkable that the two most effective campaigners are a 16-year-old schoolgirl and a 93-year-old man [Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, if you haven’t been paying attention]. They are not paid voices. It is difficult for people to know what to do about climate change. You can cancel your holiday but the plane will go there anyway without you. You can do something about cutting down on use of plastics and that makes you feel more powerful.’
However he sounds a warning that you have to practise what you preach. He mentions a former Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer who started a campaign about carbon reduction. It then came out that he drove a Bentley so he lost all credibility. Food for thought for those who speak about the need for eco-friendly travel but fly in private jets.
Matthew has five children. His oldest son is starting a business in cacao, the seed from which cocoa and chocolate are derived. It is a superfood with great health benefits. His second son has just graduated from an American university and is writing scripts. He has an 18- year-old daughter who is a singer and two younger children who are still at school.
How did he come to be in Burford? “I started subscribing to Country Life when I was 22. I wanted to buy a house one day and I knew it would have some religious connection. I was collecting religious artefacts. I flipped through the property pages of Country Life every Thursday. One day I was thinking ‘Will the house for me be on the next page?”. I turned over - yes! Three days later I was going round it with Abbot Stuart.”
The house was sold by the Lenthall family in 1828 and by the end of the 19th century was in very poor repair. It was restored in 1907 and some more restoration was done in the 1930s. It was acquired by an order of nuns after the war and they were later joined by brothers, but by 2007 it had had no serious work done on it for 80 years. “It was a huge job and took three years during which 150 people worked on it. Fortunately, the 1907 restoration was well documented so I was able to re-submit the 1907 plans with minor amendments. Through Richard Curtis I contacted Tony Robinson and he carried out an archaeological dig for the Time Team television programme. They found the there had been a settlement on the site since the sixth or seventh century and discovered remains from the medieval religious house which was here until the dissolution of the monasteries.” The house has been beautifully restored and furnished and even has a ghost.
Matthew points out the elaborate plaster ceiling in the upstairs room where we are sitting. “It took six months to be restored by a man with a brush with about three hairs on it who lay on his back on scaffolding going over it inch by inch. The chimneys (all 27 of them) were pargetted - lined with liquid plaster - by the last pargetter left in the country. Restoring this house is the thing I have done that I am proudest of. It was a privilege to be able to bring the house back.”. The gardens were planned by Mary Keen, a former Burford Festival speaker. The house is Grade 1 listed and he regards himself less as the owner than as the custodian who will pass it on to future generations.
“We buried my dad in the graveyard of the house where the nuns are buried, and also a number of pets. There is a memorial there to Philip Gould [strategy adviser to Tony Blair] who was my business partner for ten years. We had our first wedding here this year”. There is a natural amphitheatre in the woods near the river and in the summer he arranged for Jools Holland and his 27 piece band to perform there for his company staff. He hosts the reception for the Burford Banquet during Burford Festivals and has discussed having other festival events in the grounds. The gardens are opened on Snowdrop Sundays (although this year ironically it snowed).
A parting shot - has he any PR advice for Boris Johnson? “If John Bercow is the modern Lenthall, then Boris is the modern Charles I. It didn’t end well last time”.