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By The Drum | Administrator

June 24, 2004 | 6 min read

Andrew Collier and Maggie Stanfield with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (He's the one in the middle).

It was an unexpected call: “Would Written Words like to handle the PR for the Dalai Lama?” But it was the follow-on that caused me to sit up: “There’s not much money in it.”

Well, we’re a magnanimous company, but all the same. “Can I ask what sort of budget you think we’re talking about here?” I emphasised to my contact, a senior executive on a national paper with a personal attachment to Buddhism. “Not a lot. Maybe nothing at all.”

And then the caveat. “But you might – just might – get an exclusive interview with His Holiness if you help out. You can do what you like with that.”

It was an intriguing proposition for a freelance agency with a PR wing. We do the media relations for nothing but in return we get an interview with one of the world’s foremost religious leaders, which we can sell worldwide.

I called Written Words’ chief executive, Maggie Stanfield. “We’ll do it,” she said. It would be tremendously hard work for no financial return but it would also be a challenge and a learning experience. Plus, it would boost our profile in PR and add credibility. And he was a good and spiritual man fighting for a decent cause.

We both wondered about the viability of the business model. We were asking the media to buy an interview while the subject was our PR client. Would we get laughed out of court? We thought it was worth the risk. Our client would be the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association, the visit hosts, not the Dalai Lama direct. We felt comfortable with the proposition. Since Maggie founded Written Words two years ago, the company has undertaken a range of different types of project. We’ve written extensively for newspapers and magazines; produced speeches, reports, web content and internal publications; and provided training for corporate clients. Recently, we moved into PR, leveraging off Maggie’s extensive experience with the Northern Ireland Office, where she worked for four Secretaries of State, as well as my own for companies such as Intelligent Finance and Scottish TV.

As working journalists, we were asking the media to accept that we could produce a hard-hitting interview with His Holiness, which would be every bit as rigorous and honest as that carried out under the more usual rules.

Our track record, we felt, stood us in good stead. Together, we have more than 50 years’ experience in journalism and have written for every UK paper from the Sun to the FT, as well as for a host of foreign papers and magazines. Maggie’s experience includes interviewing the likes of Bill Clinton and Seamus Heaney and being a BBC producer. Mine includes conversations with Prime Ministers and Cardinals. No-one could seriously question our credibility – or could they?

We didn’t really know, because the model was offbeat and the Scottish media likes to stick to commissioning freelances, using staff or getting press releases as a backgrounder for its own writers. What would they make of an approach from freelances they use regularly but who were offering straight copy while doing the subject’s PR? To confuse it further, we were planning a thoroughly professional PR service, dealing with accreditation fairly and ensuring that everyone had access to pictures and copy.

We could make the distinction between our roles as impartial journalists and as PR managers, but would they?

The first test came when we started to find strong stories associated with the trip. We quickly identified a fascinating character profile on Kesang Takla, His Holiness’s Ambassador in London. Another cracking story surrounded Tibetan singer Soname, who was to perform at the Usher Hall. Then there was Amy, the little blind girl with the magical musical talent who would be singing to the Dalai Lama.

It started to go awry. Papers wanted the stories but wanted to write them for themselves. They didn’t want our copy, even when it was free. The Herald’s magazine loved the Takla story but insisted on a house writer re-interviewing her. The Sunday Post liked it too, but didn’t like the deal. The Evening News loved the Amy story, but got a house journalist to rewrite it.

Yet other papers thought differently. The Mail on Sunday, for example, was thrilled with my feature on Soname. Not only did they feature a full page but they paid for the flight to Brighton to do the interview. They knew me and knew the copy would be solid and straight.

When we did our interview with His Holiness, we met problems. The papers wanted the interview for themselves. They didn’t see why they should buy it from a PR, even if the PR was a journalist who regularly wrote for them.

The Scotsman did agree, a bit reluctantly, to pay its normal rate for a piece. The Daily Record and the Sun took leader page news features on normal commercial terms, recognising the value of our news line on His Holiness’s views on Scottish devolution – “It could be a model for Tibet.”

It was a huge learning curve. It hurt to have to recognise that newspapers would view us as PRs or as journalists, not as a combination. People might accuse us of being naïve. We’d rather think we were trying to frame a solution that should have benefited everyone.

The whole event was packed with highlights. Meeting His Holiness was unforgettable: his genuine warmth and incredible charisma left a mark on both of us. We met a lot of wonderful people – people we hope we can work with in the future, and whose friendship and support has been unstinting. We’ve now recognised reality and decided to set up a separate business. Maggie will continue to run Written Words and there will be a separate PR company, disengaged from the writing.

Back, in other words, to the normal conventions. What a shame.

Andrew Collier is editorial director of Written Words.

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