Celebrity confessions with Stephen Fry and Max Clifford

7th November 1997 at 00:00
My National Certificate class, halfway through a public relations skills module and already making Max Clifford look timid, were discussing how they would rescue Stephen Fry from the awkward position in which he had found himself over his recent comments about ecstasy. It's all happened before, of course. From Adam Faith to John Lennon and more recently Liam Gallagher, celebrities have made pronouncements which have sent their PR consultants into overdrive.

This, though, was a nice case study with a strong local angle. In a magazine interview, Fry, rector of Dundee University for the past five years, had admitted taking the drug once. From a publicity point of view, the remark appeared with perfect timing and against an ideal backdrop. It was the run-up to Drugs Prevention Week here in Tayside. Tayside Health Promotion Centre had lined up a drugs media workshop with 18 students from the three FE colleges in the area, to find effective ways of putting across to the public the message that drugs are dangerous.

Enter Fry, with what seemed to many a flippant, careless and highly irresponsible comment. As his public relations consultant, what would they do? I asked the class. Colin leant back in his chair. He couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Colin subscribed to the "no such thing as bad publicity" school of thought. "His film's opening this week, he's going round the country signing copies of his autobiography. So what harm is this going to do him? He's only going to sell even more cinema tickets and more books. It's good publicity. " He sat back in his chair and folded his arms with the air of someone who had an ideal client on his books.

Iain was less optimistic. As a public figure, as the representative of students, Fry had behaved irresponsibly and there was a big damage limitation exercise on hand. Iain sifted through the press cuttings littered with phrases such as "moral leadership" and calls for retraction, and said he thought the rector had dug himself a very deep hole indeed - or words to that effect.

Gillian and Nicky, who seemed to have adopted an Absolutely Fabulous approach to the whole module, shrugged off both sides of the argument. Nicky's fingernails are long and green, and she had carefully pierced each with a pin so that she could insert an earring in each perfectly polished tip. They made pleasant jingling noises when she moved her hands, though admittedly they had made keying in her press release rather difficult. However, they were ideal for studying carefully and introducing a pregnant pause into her conversation. She did precisely that before asking: "Who's going to listen to what he says?" She laughed scornfully as if she had been practising and Gillian joined in, adding: "He's just a celebrity."

Fry's comments have been played down by the university itself, calling rectors "exotic creatures", and carefully distancing the institution from his statements while drawing attention to its strong anti-drugs policy. The Scotland Against Drugs campaign, however, were less tolerant and while they did not insist on his resignation they called for a public retraction. Local drug prevention agencies said they found his remarks unhelpful.

Fry, though making it clear he did not advocate the use of illegal drugs, seemed unrepentant at the furore, saying he "lived in the most childish country" where an honest statement drew gasps of horror. He may take some cold comfort from the fact that most of the class shared Gillian's and Nicky's point of view. They felt he was entitled to say what he thought, that he was only talking about himself and his own point of view, and anyway, he had no influence on what they did or didn't do. "If you wanted the truth about drugs, you wouldn't listen to somebody like that," Colin said. "You'd ask your mates. You'd get the truth from them."

That is certainly a lesson learnt early on in anti-drug campaigns. Young people are more likely to listen to advice if it comes from people their own age - just as they are more likely to experiment with drugs if their mates do. Peer pressure is more powerful than moral leadership from on high.

Young people are frequently highly knowledgeable about drugs. That fact is often overlooked by those who become nervous at the initiatives taken by some help groups and who see information about drug use as synonymous with encouragement to experiment.

Stephen Fry may well have shocked the so-called adults by his remarks, but to the grown-up young people in any PR class he is an irrelevance. If it is leadership they are after, they are more likely to turn to their mates. The 18 young FE students who attended the Drugs Media Workshop this week will have a vital role to play in making sure that in getting the anti-drug message across, we don't underestimate the sophistication of our young people.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media and communication at Dundee College.

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